Cheers for Our Christmas Cactus

No, not that Christmas cactus. While most people think of various species of Schlumbergera  as the traditional Christmas cactus, the plant variously known as Tasajillo, Christmas Cactus, Pencil Cactus, and Christmas Cholla (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis) spreads its color across the Texas landscape well into the winter months.  

Growing at altitudes between 500 and 5000 feet, west of the Brazos River in South and West Texas grasslands, chaparral, and oak-juniper communities, the plant often escapes notice until other desert shrubs lose their foliage and its bright red fruits become apparent.

Leptocaulis means slender-stemmed, and those stems often twist together to form inpenetrable thickets. The thickets provide nesting sites for cactus wrens, while white-tail deer, bobwhite quail, wild turkey, and other birds and small mammals feed on the fruits.

Tasajillo has seemed especially abundant this year: a boon to the creatures depending on it for food and shelter, and a colorful addition to our season of celebration.

Comments always are welcome.

41 thoughts on “Cheers for Our Christmas Cactus

    1. I’ve read that both the buds and the fruits are edible for humans, too. Of course, they’re as labor intensive to prepare as the fruit of the prickly pear, so I don’t think I’ll be mixing any drinks with cholla syrup this year.

  1. I’d forgotten that tasajillo doesn’t grow in your coastal area. While you’ve found it abundant this year, presumably in the center of the state, I haven’t photographed a single one in 2020 and have barely seen any; in fact the first this year may have been the one Eve noticed on our walk near the Colorado River yesterday. I can’t account for that, because in previous years I’ve seen my share of them.

    The low end of the altitude range that you found for this species is still a bit high. For example, I’ve seen plenty of tasajillos in southeast Austin at McKinney Falls State Park, whose elevation range is given as 518 to 620 ft.

    1. I found the reason for the higher altitude range I quoted. I went back to the site where I located the figure and discovered I’d missed that it was dedicated to southwest desert flora, particularly the Sonoran, Chihuahuan, and Mojave deserts. It makes sense that it could be found at lower altitudes here in Texas, although the spots where I found mine (Gillespie, Bandera, Kerr, and Medina counties) ranged from about 900′ to 2200′. Around Fredericksburg and Willow City, and across Medina Mountain, they were as thick as I’ve ever seen them.

    2. After some exploration, I found even some Texas-specific sites like this one using the same altitude range of one to five thousand feet. I wonder if there might have been some information copying from one site to another. In any event, I adjusted the range in the post, since tasajillo’s obviously found below one thousand feet.

      I found this neat, clickable topographic map, too. It was fun to follow roads like the Willow City loop and ‘see’ the landscape in a different way.

      1. Information copying: you bet. A little while ago I left a comment on someone’s blog pointing out that the quotation the person used as a header isn’t by the man it’s attributed to, even though that attribution appears on a slew of websites. The quotation was “Man did not weave the web of life – he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself,” and the false attribution is to Chief Seattle. In fact a screenwriter named Ted Perry wrote those words. The full account is at The larger passage that includes the quotation is blacked out there, presumably for copyright reasons, but I found that if I drag my mouse through the blacked-out text the words become visible.

        And yes, that’s a handy map to find out elevations.

  2. There is something visually delightful about that bright scarlet red against the green. I am so in favor of safe nesting spots for those pert little bundles of bluff and nonsense that are the wrens. And then, there is that ‘look but don’t touch’ thing about cacti.

    1. I’ve often thought that red and green must have become holiday colors precisely because they’re present in nature at this time of year. The holly (including our yaupon and possumhaw) probably is the most obvious example, but there are plenty of others. It’s amazing that so many birds and other critters navigate these thickets so easily. If only we could do the same.

    1. It’s certainly easy to spot at this time of year. I found photographing it difficult, because it tends toward messiness, and there always are a lot of half-eaten or damaged fruits. Still, it’s a great plant, and a good addition to any xeric landscape.

  3. Vivid scarlet and deep green are immediately reminiscent of holly, and in the minds of many that means Christmas. Your mention of Cactus Wren reminded me that I first saw this bird at Laguna Atascosa NWR in Southeast Texas about forty years ago. I don’t recall the cactus, however!

    1. Coincidentally, on the same trip when I took this photo, I made it to the Atascosa River for the first time — as well as Atascosa County. Both are rather north of the refuge you visited, but it was interesting to roam into an area where I’d never been. I do know that the refuge is a prime destination among the birders I know; you’re lucky to have been able to visit.

    1. I grew one of those store Christmas cacti from a little slip that a friend gave me. After thirty years, it became huge — and then it died. I might give another one a try, but for the time being, these pretty natives are great substitutes!

    1. There’s something about red in the landscape that is cheering. Another example is a cardinal in snow. I always loved seeing them when I lived in the north country, since there wasn’t any plant-based red to enjoy in winter. I hope your Christmas is as bright and cheery as this cactus, Ann!

  4. There is yet another “Christmas Cactus”…

    In parts of west Texas and New Mexico, people often take the dead bloom stalk of a century plant, the top 4 or 5 feet where it tapers like a tree, and “plant” it in a colorful ceramic pot. Then, they paint it, usually gold or silver, and hang ornaments from its branches.

    (I despise cholla, unless it is blooming or producing those bright red seed pods. I think they actually leap onto me from great distance as I walk within range).

    1. Your comment about the cholla reminded me that one nickname for a certain species is ‘jumping cactus,’ precisely because of its uncanny ability to reach out and touch anyone who happens by. I’ve never seen one — it looks like they grow much farther west — but they certainly are impressive plants.

      I once saw a century plant used as a Christmas tree at the mission in Goliad. When I went to look for my post, to see if there might have been a photo, I had to laugh. I’d forgotten that I used your photo of an agave in the Chisos Mountains as the first photo in that post. That was four years ago; how time does fly.

  5. Prettiest Christmas fruit ever. (So nice the plant is thoughtful enough to form thickets to protect the animals’ produce) A blooming thicket must be fascinating and glorious to see. Have to have presence to see the presents

    1. The closest blooming thicket around here is over at the Dudney Nature Center; at least, it was there until they began the renovations and reconstruction. It was full of invasive trifoliate orange. The flowers are beautiful, the fruit is inedible, and the thorns? They put cactus to shame. Still, a native thicket beats an invasice thicket every time — especially if you’re a critter singing, “Gimme Shelter.”

    1. I think about that every time I see a prickly pear that’s had a big chomp taken out of a pad. I don’t know how they manage it. They have to have tougher tongues than ours.

    1. We have native hollies and a native ‘poinsettia,’ but this is just so ‘Texan’ — I was delighted to find it in time for sharing at Christmas. it’s a good reminder that what irritates us can be good for wildlife, too; that’s always important to remember.

  6. Our Christmas cactus never got the message and flowers at various times. Guess why some call them Thanksgiving Cactus or even Easter at times.
    Red and green being so complementary makes them perfect for the holiday season.

    1. In fact, it seems the plant breeders have been busy. Here’s an interesting article that explains why some of these plants bloom at different times. Cynical me is thinking, “Of course! Plants blooming at different times mean more sales for the florists.”

      I sure do agree about red and green. Nature’s a pretty good artist.

    1. The fruits are grape-sized: smaller than most of the prickly pear tunas. They are edible, but you’re right. The effort it takes to get the spines and glochids off isn’t worth it unless you’re really into foraging, are a federal escapee trying to live off the land, or a grad student looking for a thesis topic!
      Better they should stay a Christmas decoration — a bit of bright color for our holiday. I hope yours is a happy one!

  7. I like that one much better than the purpley Schlumbergera, as I suppose it is, that languishes in my greenhouse right now. It missed Christmas this year! Maybe I didn’t bring it into the light at the necessary time. Your robust species has a more Christmas-y color.

    1. You know, I’ve learned that the so-called ‘Christmas cactus’ — the Schlumbergera — have been bred to bloom at Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter. Perhaps yours is one that’s on a different schedule. Apart from that, you probably wouldn’t want this one inside the house — it’s not quite as friendly!

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