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   Cactus are indigenous to the Western Hemisphere, are found in their greatest concentration along the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, and are native to every American state except Vermont and Maine. They are found in deserts, on seashores, in mountains, on plains, balds, and glades.

     Cactus are as evocative of the West as Sagebrush is, and the two plants often grow near each other.

     Cactus come in a number of shapes, their flowers are often very large and attractive, their fruits are edible (some delicious, some not so), and they have evolved a number of structures and processes that make them perfectly at home in what we humans usually call "a hostile environment": They have a tough, waxy outer layer that reduces moisture loss; they produce chlorophyll not in leaves but in the outer cells of the stems; they convert absorbed water into a mucilaginous liquid that can be stored in large quantities in tissues capable of expanding; and many Cactus root easily producing new plants from broken pads/stems of older plants.

     "Cactus" is Greek for "prickly plant"; the word was used by Linnaeus in the 18th century to describe a prickly, thistle-like Asteraceae found in Italy. The name "Cactus" was again used in the 19th century for the newly discovered spiny, drought resistant plants of the Western Hemisphere.

Cylindropuntia whipplei

Cylindropuntia whipplei

Cylindropuntia whipplei

Cylindropuntia whipplei

Cylindropuntia whipplei.  Synonym: Opuntia whipplei. (Whipple's Cholla).
Cactaceae (Cactus Family)

Semi-desert, foothills. Openings. Summer.
Top of page: Carpenter Natural Area, July, 2014 and Hawkins Natural Area, February 5, 2015.
Left: Big Canyon Trail, Durango, June 22, 2008 and
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, April 29 and May 8, 2009.

The height and width of Cylindropuntia whipplei varies widely with growing conditions.  In some locations of its range in the Four Corners states, Cylindropuntia whipplei grows to three feet tall in massive thickets; in other locations the plant grows to about a foot tall and spreads to several feet in diameter in an open shrub-like formation; and in still other locations it grows in a dense low mat  --  as shown in the third photograph at left. 

Cylindropuntia whipplei flowers are large and yellow-green.

Cylindropuntia whipplei might be confused with Cylindropuntia imbricata but the latter has lavender-purple flowers, commonly grows from four to seven feet tall, has one to few, branches from ground level with thick main stems, and its stems are twice the diameter of Cylindropuntia whipplei's stemsSome Cactus experts are sure that the two species hybridize. One possible hybrid in the Four Corners region is Cylindropuntia x viridiflora (which is found most prominently in several locations in Santa Fe).  Click for information about C. x viridiflora.

C. whipplei is rare in Utah, found in only a few southwest counties in Colorado (but common in these counties), and common in much of Arizona and New Mexico.

C. whipplei can easily be confused with Opuntia fragilis, especially when the plants are only 10-30 years old. See Opuntia fragilis for details about the similarities and differences in the two species.

Cylindropuntia whipplei.  Synonym: Opuntia whipplei. (Whipple's Cholla).
Cactaceae (Cactus Family)  

Semi-desert, foothills. Openings. Summer.
Big Canyon Trail, Durango, June 22, 2008
.

George Engelmann and John Bigelow named this plant Opuntia whipplei in 1856.  F. M. Knuth placed the plant in the Cylindropuntia genus in 1935, at the same time that he coined that genus name. Amiel Whipple participated in and led several western surveys in the mid-1800s. (Click for more biographical information about Whipple.)

Cylindropuntia whipplei

Cylindropuntia whipplei.  Synonym: Opuntia whipplei. (Whipple's Cholla).
Cactaceae (Cactus Family)

Semi-desert, foothills. Openings. Summer.
Big Canyon Trail, Durango, June 22, 2008 and Carpenter Natural Area, Cortez, June 24, 2013.

Cylindropuntia whipplei
Cylindropuntia whipplei.  Synonym: Opuntia whipplei. (Whipple's Cholla).
Cactaceae (Cactus Family)

Semi-desert, foothills. Openings. Summer.
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument near Yellow Jacket Canyon, April 23, 2009.

Fruits are yellow to yellow-green to red (see top of page) and they have small spines.  Notice the spine arrangement and varying length on the main stem.

 

Range map © John Kartesz,
Floristic Synthesis of North America

State Color Key

Species present in state and native
Species present in state and exotic
Species not present in state

County Color Key

Species present and not rare
Species present and rare
Species extirpated (historic)
Species extinct
Species noxious
Species exotic and present
Native species, but adventive in state
Eradicated
Questionable presence

Range map for Cylindropuntia whipplei