Look out for these thorny desert hazards when you are out exploring, especially if you go off trail.
- Bigalow (opuntia bigalovii) cholla cacti, better known as jumping cactus, can grow to five feet with green branches on top of a fuzzy looking brown trunk. It is this fuzzy appearance that gives it its other common name, Teddy Bear Cactus, which is anything but fuzzy since the brown trunk is tightly packed mass of spines. Chain fruit cholla is also sometimes called a jumping cholla. The name comes from its characteristic of having segments, covered with thorns, that detach easily from the mother plant when brushed against by coyotes, javalinas, or the soft pink flesh of homo sapiens. The spines have a fish-hook curve to the end and are a bugger to get out, sometimes requiring breaking the thorns off and pushing them all the way through the skin or clothing and out the other side. You can walk through a large bigalow garden in Joshua Tree NP.
- Catclaw (acacia greggii), a bushy plant (photo left) also known as devil's claw and wait-a-minute bush, is also characterized by its hooked thorns that grab the unsuspecting passerby and won't let go, who must then stop ("wait a minute") to carefully remove the thorns to avoid injury or shredding clothing. Catclaw thrives in washes and canyons to 6,000 feet along with creosote bush.
- Mesquite (varieties of prosopis) trees can reach over 20 feet tall but usually are large shrubs. The thorns (photo below) are strong--they can penetrate a sneaker or tire--and up to three inches long. Very hardy and will grow in the harshest of terrain. Mesquite often took over desert savanna grasslands when grazed too heavily by cattle, squeezing out the native grasses.
These are but three of the thorny desert hazards, but once you
recognize them you can give them a wide berth. But remember, most cacti--and several shrubs--have thorns, so before you lean back on a plant to rest--take a close look.
For the complete guide to boondocking, check out my eBook, BOONDOCKING: Finding the Perfect Campsite on America's Public Lands.