The buckhorn cholla (Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa) is an open and spreading woody cactus, up to 1 m tall. The gray-green stems, also called "joints", are cylindrical, 5-30 cm long and 17-20 mm in diameter with tubercles or nodules. Each tubercle has a cluster of stiff spines, which are covered with loose papery sheaths. The flowers are up to 5 cm long and range from yellow to purple-red with shades in between. The fruits are obovoid, dry, shriveled and spiny and drop off later in the season. The seeds are light yellowish to gray-brown, 3.5 to 4 mm. long.
Varieties of C. acanthocarpa (var. acanthocarpa, var. coloradensis, var. major and var. thornberi) are found in Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah; in Arizona, all of the varieties are protected plants.
Global Range: Mojavean and Sonoran Deserts. California, Nevada, Arizona.
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Habitat and Ecology
Comments: Sandy or gravelly soils of benches, slopes of mountains, mesas, flats, and washes in the desert, woodland and brush.
Number of Occurrences
Note: For many non-migratory species, occurrences are roughly equivalent to populations.
Estimated Number of Occurrences: 21 to >300
Comments: Ninety-nine estimated EO's (Benson 1982)
Opuntia acanthocarpa commonly germinates and grows under the canopy of nurse plants. Hilaria rigida is the most common nurse plant for this and other cholla cacti but this species will utilize other favorable microhabitat. As the cactus develops it often begins to compete with the nurse plant for resources and is often responsible for die backs in the nurse plant. Mature plants can reciprocally play a nurse plant role for other species.
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: NNR - Unranked
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G4 - Apparently Secure
Reasons: Approx. 100 EO's from the Mojvean and Sonoran Deserts.
Comments: Most cacti subject to horticultural collecting.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
In the Southwest the Hualapai and Pima harvested the unopened flower buds of buckhorn cholla with two long sticks. The sticks were used to grab the mature buds and twist them off into a large flat basket or bucket. The spines are then removed prior to cooking. Traditionally the buds were baked in an earthen pit, lined with stones, and heated with mesquite (Prosopis velutina) firewood. Then the buds were eaten right away or dried and stored for future use. Pima individuals who had stomach troubles were put on a special diet of these buds made into gruel. Some individuals still gather buckhorn cholla today.
There are a number of recognized varieties include:
- Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa var. acanthocarpa 
- Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa var. coloradensis — L.D. Benson; Colorado buckhorn cholla. 
- Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa var. ganderi — (C.B. Wolf) L.D. Benson
- Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa var. major — Engelm. & J.M. Bigelow 
- Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa var. ramosa — Peebles
- Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa var. thornberi — (Thornber & Bonker) L.D. Benson; Thornber's buckhorn cholla. 
- Early spring was called ko’oak macat (the painful moon) by the Tohono O’odham because of scarce food supplies. During this season, they turned to cacti for food and pit-roasted thousands of calcium-rich cholla flower buds.
- Today’s O’odham people still pit-roast or boil the cholla buds, which taste like asparagus tips.
Names and Taxonomy
Comments: Kartesz has sometimes (e.g. 1994) included Opuntia ganderi, an endemic Californian plant, as a variety (Opuntia acanthocarpa var. ganderi). This record is for the treatment that is only slightly narrower, excluding O. ganderi.