This is a plant not to be taken lightly and should be approached and handled with extream caution. The spines of this cactus are very sharp and barbed making it very difficult to remove from the flesh. In many states cactus are protected and should not be tampered with under any circumstances unless in an actual survival situation.
These cactus are miniature trees and can grow from 3 feet and in some cases 9 feet tall. The branches are short much shorter than the trunk and only branch two times at the most. The trunk and spines on the trunk turn to a blackened color. The joints of the plant are narrow, ellipsoid, 3 to 10 inches long, and have a green to bluish tinge. The spines are extremely sharp, straw colored, and consist of several aureole with 6 to 10 spines each spreading in several directions. They reach an inch long, narrow, flattened, and very strong. The flower is a beautiful light green to yellow.
The Teddy Bear Cholla or Opuntia bigelovii can be found all over central and southern Arizona from 100 to 3,000 feet. It is found in rocky soil of south facing slopes, hills, and mountains.
This plant has some edible qualities but is a little difficult to obtain. It is best to handle this cactus with tongs to prevent being stuck with the spines. The round, spiny, clusters that grow off the jointed branches can be removed and the spines burned or cut off. They can then be safely eaten. The food is very fleshy and viscous with a series of central veins or fibers running through the core. I find that most cactus in the desert have a taste that is reminiscent of that of cucumber. They are great raw and can be added to soups and stews. The viscous material will also thicken the stew and has the same consistency as okra.
The photo at right shows the Teddy Bear Cholla’s buds. These appear after the flower has gone. These buds are edible when cooked but be warned the seeds are very hard. Almost like biting small stones. These seeds can be ground into flower and eaten as cakes or a type of flat bread. This flower can also be added to your home flower to add a little extra flavor to biscuits or even pancakes. Make sure the flower is finely ground. For a speedy way of doing this one could the seeds into a grain grinder and grind them a few times with different disks.
Getting the cactus stuck to you is a common occurrence while out in the desert. I have simply stepped on them and they will grab on and not let go. In some cases the wind can blow the spines into you. The best way I have found to remove them is with a comb. Trust me this is excruciatingly painful, but so far the best and quickest way to get the job done.