There is painful truth behind the myth of the jumping cholla.
On my very first visit to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, I discovered the truth about the cactus that purportedly throws its spiny branches at unsuspecting passersby. Preposterous as it sounds, there really is something to it.
First, let's clarify what plant we're talking about. The most common (in my informal estimation, anyway) sizeable perennial plant in the vicinity of San Felipe Creek is the teddy bear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii). It is also called jumping cholla. There is another cactus that lives at higher elevations that is more properly called jumping cholla (C. fulgida). Both of these cacti, and all other chollas (all other members of the genus Cylindropuntia) have very similar lifecycles and very similar reproduction strategies. They differ (sometimes subtly) in appearance, but other properties are the same. So, the myth of them throwing their branches applies to all chollas, and my interpretation of how the myth originated probably also applies to all chollas, but my particular experience is only with the teddy bear cholla.
The teddy bear cholla is a somewhat large cactus, standing up to eight feet tall, but more typically between four feet to five and a half feet tall. Like all chollas, it has an almost tree-like branching structure, and it is quite thoroughly covered with long, thin spines. The teddy bear cholla's spines are somewhat longer and much thinner than those of related species, and they cover the branches and trunk much more densely. This creates a fuzzy, almost cuddly appearance which gives the plant its common name.
But you don't want to cuddle this teddy bear!
When you get within a couple of feet, in case you didn't know already, you can see that the fuzzy coating is actually made of long, thin, wickedly sharp spines.
Like all chollas, the teddy bear produces flowers in season, and these flowers ripen and produce fruit. And like many chollas, the fruits of the teddy bear cholla often contain no seeds, and even those seeds that it does produce are very often infertile. The teddy bear cholla can reproduce sexually via seeds, but it rarely does.
The main reproduction strategy of the teddy bear cholla, also used in varying degrees by many other cactus species, is asexual reproduction by budding. Nearly all members of the cholla genus produce special "bud branches" which grow to a certain size - maybe five or six inches long in the case of the teddy bear - and then break off. When these bud branches fall, they can take root and produce a new plant which is a clone of the parent.
Very often, the bud branches take root where they fell, and a single teddy bear cholla grows into a dense stand - a miniature teddy bear forest.
Sometimes, a fallen bud branch will be carried a short distance from the parent plant. The spines are barbed, and easily hook onto the fur or feathers or clothing of an unsuspecting passerby, and said unsuspecting passerby will remove the annoying bud branch, thus propagating the teddy bear cholla.
So far, that's the plain and simple scientific truth about the teddy bear cholla, and I had read that much before I ever set foot in Anza-Borrego Desert State park.
Now, the myth whereby this species (and many other chollas) gets the name "jumping cholla" is that the plant somehow throws these bud branches at animals or people who dare to get too close, or that the fallen bud branches jump off the ground to hitch a ride with a passerby.
Preposterous, of course. The scientific mind satisfies itself that the myth originates in how easily the bud branches break off and/or in how easily the fine, barbed spines attach themselves to fur, feathers, clothing, or skin.
Armed with this scientific background and scoffing interpretation of the myth, I walked fearlessly past the fuzzy cacti all around me. Never gave a thought to the silly idea that they might jump out at me.
I had stopped along State Route 78 somewhere, not at a marked trail, to get a closer look at something. I had walked some distance from the car, maybe a hundred feet or so, and was approaching the object of interest.
Something slammed into the back of my left leg just below the knee. Sparks of pain shot up my leg. Quicker than I could make a conscious decision about the matter, I lost all interest in whatever I was looking for and I decided instead to see what was happening to my leg.
A bud branch of a teddy bear cholla was stuck to the back of my leg, about two thirds of the way from my ankle to my knee. The spines had passed through my jeans and deep into my calf muscle, stapling my pants to my leg.
I took hold of the cloth on either side of the cactus and pulled it away from my leg. Didn't help much, because now some of the spines were still stuck into my leg, but inside my pants. And the bud was still there on my pants, ready to stick more spines into me if I let it fall back against my leg.
I picked up two rocks to grip the cactus and pull it off my pants. (Just try to find a stick in the desert when you want one!) The situation was improving somewhat. Now I could take hold of each spine that remained in my pants and pull them out.
That process complete, I carefully pulled my pant-leg up to my knee, trying not to drive the remaining spines even deeper into my leg.
(By the way, I have a source that says the spines are about an inch to an inch and a half long. Hah! I would realistically call it two-and-a-half to three inches.)
Now I began pulling the spines out of my leg. There were probably nearly twenty of them. Most of them were just barely stuck into the skin, but a half-dozen or so had penetrated more than an inch, and at least one was more than an inch and a half into my flesh.
There was surprisingly little blood in all this. The spines are as fine as sewing needles, and even though the entire teddy bear assault was very painful, each individual spine created a tiny, clean wound that closed up immediately as I withdrew the spine. I suppose it's somewhat like acupuncture without the "acu" part. Only one of the spines drew blood, being followed by a single drop of blood as I pulled it out.
I had helped to transport that bud branch a few feet away from its parent, but it didn't occur to me at the time to congratulate myself on contributing to the propagation of a species.
How had that bud branch stapled itself to my leg, more than a foot above the ground, and from behind?
I didn't believe it, but I could readily see how someone might believe that it had jumped off the ground, or that its parent plant had thrown it at me when it saw that I had passed.
Almost immediately after I started to think about it, I suspected the real answer, and an examination of my right shoe provided conclusive evidence. I had stepped right next to a bud branch that was lying on the ground, and it had stuck to the left side of my right shoe, as a couple of spines in my shoe confirmed. Then, with my next step, I had raised the branch off the ground and slammed it into the back of my left leg.
I had learned. Oh, had I learned!
So there I was, a hundred feet from my car, surrounded by menacing monsters disguised as harmless teddy bears! Now I knew that their outstretched fuzzy arms were just a diversion. The real danger - and it most certainly was a real danger - lay on the ground around them.
From that instant, and in all my subsequent hikes in the desert, I walk with great caution whenever there are teddy bear chollas in sight. And in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, there are always teddy bear chollas in sight!