1. Cylindropuntia imbricata (Haw.) F.M.Knuth

    1. The so-called tree cholla is not actually a tree at all, but a succulent shrub, which in favourable conditions can grow to the height of a small tree. It is normally seen in Europe as a greenhouse plant and has striking large (but short-lived) flowers.


Kew Species Profiles

General Description
The tree cholla is a cactus closely related to the prickly pear (Opuntia) and is equally spiny.

The so-called tree cholla is not actually a tree at all, but a succulent shrub, which in favourable conditions can grow to the height of a small tree. It is normally seen in Europe as a greenhouse plant and has striking large (but short-lived) flowers.

Sir David Prain, one time Director of Kew and editor of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine wrote the text accompanying the plate of this plant. He noted that the plant illustrated came from Sir Edmund Loder of Leonardslee, Sussex, where ‘a plant which he had himself collected in Colorado in 1878 flowered early in August 1908’.

Species Profile

Geography and distribution

Found in central and northern Mexico and southwestern USA in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Colorado at elevations of 1,200 - 2,300 m. It has also become naturalised and invasive in parts of South Africa.


In cultivation, Cylindropuntia imbricata is normally a shrub 1–2 m high, but in the wild may occasionally grow to a small tree up to 5 m. It has thick, cylindrical, knobbly, woolly, spiny stems bearing spreading or ascending spiny branches. Spines have barbed sheaths as well as being barbed themselves. 

Flowers are dark pinkish-purple or magenta, measure 6–9 cm across and occur from late spring to summer.

The yellow fleshy fruits are spineless and barrel-shaped with a flattened end. They measure approximately 3 cm across and persist during winter.


Cylindropuntia imbricata is grown as an ornamental. The young stems and fruits were dried and eaten by native Americans during the winter months whenever food was scarce.

Old stems become hollow in the centre, leaving an attractive latticed outer casing, and these dead stems are used to make decorative walking sticks and floral arrangements.

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life worldwide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in Kew's seed bank vault at Wakehurst.

Description of seeds:Average 1000 seed weight is 7.531 gNumber of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: Two


Propagation of tree cholla is by seeds or rooting of stems.

This species at Kew

Cylindropuntia imbricata is grown in the Princess of Wales Conservatory.

Pressed and dried specimens of Cylindropuntia imbricata are held in Kew’s Herbarium, where they are available to researchers from around the world, by appointment. The details of some of these can be seen online (under the synonym Opuntia imbricata) in the Herbarium Catalogue.

Kew’s Economic Botany Collection includes a rough walking stick made from tree cholla that was brought back to Kew from Colorado in 1882.

Mexico, USA
Dry grassland in sandy and rocky areas.
Least Concern (LC) according to conservation assessments made in the New Cactus Lexicon, following the IUCN Red List criteria.

Spines are barbed and hazardous and as with all thorny plants can result in secondary infections.

Ornamental, decoration, dead stems used as walking sticks, food in time of famine.



Found In:

Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Mexico Central, Mexico Gulf, Mexico Northeast, Mexico Northwest, Mexico Southwest, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah

Introduced Into:

Argentina Northeast, Canary Is., Cape Provinces, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, Libya, Morocco, Northern Provinces, Tunisia

Common Names

Tree cholla

Cylindropuntia imbricata (Haw.) F.M.Knuth appears in other Kew resources:

First published in Kaktus-ABC: 125 (1935)

Accepted in:

  • [3] (2014) Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas 8: 271-303
  • [4] (2012) Flora Neomexicana , ed. 2, 1: 1-599. Range Science Herbarium, Las Cruces, New Mexico.
  • [5] (2011) Index synonymique de la flore d'Afrique du nord 3: 1-449. Éditions des conservatoire et jardin botaniques, Genève.


  • [1] (2016) Boletín de la Sociedad Argentina de Botánica 51: 183-207
  • [2] (2016) Revista Mexicana de Biodiversidad
  • [6] The Plant List (2010). Cylindropuntia imbricata. (Accessed 11 June 2011).
  • [7] Hunt, D., Taylor, N. & Charles, G. (2006). The New Cactus Lexicon Volume I. dh books, Milborne Port, Dorset, UK.
  • [8] (2003) Strelitzia 14: 1-1231. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
  • [9] Pinkava, D.J. (2001). Cylindropuntia in Flora of North America 4: 103–118. Oxford University Press, New York.
  • [10] Moerman, D.E. (1998). Native American ethnobotany. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon.
  • [11] Prain, D. (1909). Opuntia imbricata. Curtis’s Bot. Mag. 135: t. 8290.


Kew Species Profiles
Kew Species Profiles
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