Christmas cactus

The Desert in Winter

In much of the country, winter is a time of quiescence, but in the Sonoran Desert, especially if we have rain, we see action from both plants and animals.


Our own Christmas cactus, the pencil cholla, has bright red fruit that persist through the winter, providing food for many animals, as do the orange berries of the netleaf Hackberry tree which will be ripening in December and January.

Brittlebush, with its silvery-gray leaves will sport yellow, daisy-like flowers if there is rain.

Creosote bushes will sprout shiny new leaves.

Curve-billed thrashers will be establishing their mating territories and cactus wrens will be beginning construction of their breeding nests.


Desert mistletoe, a parasite on many trees, will be in fruit. The tiny, sticky, red berries were eaten by both the Seri and O’odham Indians. The flavor ranges from sweet to sour depending upon the host plant.

These berries also attract Phainopepla (Silky Flycatcher), a cardinal-shaped bird. The males are shiny black with a white wing patch that is conspicuous in flight. Females are dull, grayish brown. Both have red eyes.

Mountain lions will feed well on deer distracted by mating ritual.


This is the time that many desert shrubs begin to bloom. Late in February, if there has been sufficient rain, desert wildflowers such as Mexican gold poppy, lupine, and owl clover will begin their show.

Costa’s and Anna’s hummingbirds will establish territories around backyard feeders and attractive plants. The male birds will display for females. The very pugnaciousRufous hummingbirdsmay show up mid-month and dispute territorial claims from the Costa’s and Anna’s. Gila woodpeckers will begin their noisy drumming to mark their territories. You may also hear the soft call of Great Horned owls as they begin their mating season.

The winter is our second rainy season.  Unlike the often violent and capricious summer monsoon, the winter rains are gentle and soaking.  When the jet stream dips south, it brings in moisture from the Pacific.

All that is a prelude to April, when the Palo Verde trees turn the desert golden.

A Desert Christmas cactus

The name Christmas cactus is most often associated with a house plant native to Brazil, Schlumbergera, which has a stem that resembles jointed flat leaves with flowers on the end.  See here for description.

Christmas-cactus-353x550But the real Christmas cactus, with red winter fruit and a green stem, is a native of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts: a Cholla, Opuntia leptocaulis.  This Christmas cactus, also called Tsejo, Pencil-joint Cholla, Holycross Cholla, Diamond Cactus, and Darning Needle Cactus, is a small shrub-like cactus usually about two feet high (but can get to five feet high) that likes to hide among other shrubs in the desert.

The round stem is just one-quarter inch in diameter but it supports a two-inch long spine in each areole as well as glochids (tiny hair-like, generally barbed spines, very irritating). Because the plant is inconspicuous except when in fruit, it commonly ambushes hikers.

Opuntia leptocaulis (aka Cylindropuntia leptocaulis) has half-inch pale yellow flowers that open in the afternoon and close by nightfall.  The flowers are open for only three hours a day. The flowering season is May and June.  Pollinators appear to be hummingbirds, honey-bees, and cactus bees.

Christmas cactus 2This desert Christmas cactus has bright red mature fruit that persist through the winter.   The normal range is Arizona to Oklahoma, Texas, and northern Mexico at elevations from 1,000 to 5,000 feet on desert slopes and in washes.

I have seen this desert Christmas cactus around Tucson, and I have a volunteer in my yard.

The fruit provides food for a variety of animals including quail and wild turkeys.  White-tailed deer eat the joints.  Both fruit and stem provide about 8 percent protein.