Prickly pear spines up close and personal. Photo by Raul Puente-Martinez.
Raul Puente-Martinez has been pierced by quite a number of cactuses
in his time. A research botanist and curator of living collections at
the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, he's been studying prickly pears
and chollas, which are infamous for their barbed spines, for decades.
However, the worst cholla attack he's ever witnessed came while he was hiking
with several friends in Mexico. As they strolled through a cholla
forest, one of the hikers discovered a chunk of cactus stuck to the tip
of his shoe. He tried kicking his foot out to dislodge the spiny
hitchhiker. Sure enough, most of the cactus flew off—including one piece
that shot straight up and became stuck in the man's upper lip.
Puente-Martinez has had a lot of practice with removing spines. “You
could see that they were really deep inside his lip,” he recalls. “Every
time I pulled one, there was this little stream of blood coming out of
the hole; that was pretty bad.”
cactus encounters aren't quite that harrowing. But cactuses are
ubiquitous in some parts of the desert, not to mention their popularity
They've evolved a wide variety of spines to thrive in the unforgiving
desert and some can snare you more easily than others. They can also
cause painful complications. So it's a good idea to prepare yourself for
a cactus crisis. Luckily, Puente-Martinez and several other cactus
experts can offer a number of tips for removing spines based on their
Why is This Happening?
make a pretty great armor, but they aren't just there to stab you. These
fibrous structures, which are derived from leaves, do a range of other
jobs as well. A coating of spines can serve as shade by day or
insulation by night. Spines can also diffuse light similarly to a
photography umbrella, says John Trager, curator of desert collections at
the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. This
ensures that light is distributed over the plant's entire surface, even
if it is growing in a shady spot. Cactus spines can collect water
too. Some are curved downwards so that any water that condenses on them
will drip onto the soil around the roots, while a few have a cork-like
texture that absorbs water.
And spines can camouflage a cactus from hungry animals, as with the
flattened, twisted spines of the paperspine fishhook cactus that
resemble blades of grass. Cactuses are so good at blending in with their
surroundings that people sometimes fail to notice them while they are
out hiking, Trager says. “Depending on the lighting, you might not
recognize that it’s a spiny as it is until you feel it.”
The business ends of a cholla spine. Photo from Wikimedia Commons / Nebarnix.
chollas and prickly pears, spines serve another purpose that makes them
especially unpleasant to tussle with. Unlike the pillar-like saguaro or
squat ball cactus, these species are built from a collection of smaller
pieces that are easily snapped off. “Each one of those portions of the
stem has the ability to root in the ground and start a new plant,”
Puente-Martinez says. “That ability to propagate and disperse like this,
that is what has made them so successful in the desert.”
Spines are a key
part of this strategy since they allow a cholla or prickly pear pad to
snag passing animals. “They might break off a piece of that cactus and
then they will drop it somewhere else,” Puente-Martinez says.
spines of these cactuses are designed to catch hold of anything that
comes in range, including you. “They’re often viciously barbed,” Trager
says. “The so-called jumping cholla doesn’t really jump, but once it
catches onto you the barbed spines stay put.”
barbs on these spines resemble a line of fishhooks, says Park Nobel, an
emeritus professor of biology at the University of California, Los
Angeles, and coauthor of The Cactus Primer and several other
books on cactuses and agaves. "So if the spine sticks in, any movement
of the unfortunate animal makes the spines go further and further into
the tissue, thereby encountering more barbs and making movement even
more difficult," Nobel said in an email.
make matters worse, chollas and their relatives also sport fine,
hair-like spines called glochids. Some of them, such as the bunny ears
cactus that is native to Mexico, have glochids but lack regular spines,
giving them a more harmless appearance. Don’t fall for it. Glochids are
barbed and even trickier to remove than larger spines. “They look soft
and fuzzy at first glance,” Trager says. “You might be tempted to pet it
or touch it and you get a fistful of these little itchy spines.”
Can Cactus Spines be Dangerous?
extremely unlikely to die from getting speared by cactus spines, but
they can do some damage. Puente-Martinez says this is especially true if
you stumble and fall on top of them, as very occasionally happens when
people attend receptions at the Garden and get tipsy.
The bunny ears cactus is covered in tiny barbs. Photo by Stan Shebs.
spines can also wind up in more sensitive areas after the initial
attack. “If you touch that cactus and now you rub your eye or you put
your finger in your mouth, if you have those little barbs or those
glochids in there, then you really can have a problem,” says Raymond
Dieter, a semi-retired cardiothoracic surgeon who volunteers his
services at the Tri City Health Partnership Medical and Dental Clinic in
St. Charles, Illinois. “Even though you may be stuck your knee they
might end up someplace else in your body.”
barbs can painfully irritate the skin or cause an infection. Such was
the case for a young woman Dieter and his colleagues encountered who
tripped and fell on a cactus while getting up from dinner. It was not
long before swelling and redness had set in, says Dieter, who reported the incident in 2017 in the journal WOUNDS.
This reaction can lead to pustules that last for months and can result
in little black spots of dead skin that need to be cut out. In some
cases, the wound may become infected with the bacteria that cause staph infections or gas gangrene.
Spines and glochids on a prickly pear cactus. Photo by Raul Puente-Martinez.
not the most likely outcome, though. “Most people are going to do
okay,” Dieter says. “They’ll get over it in a few days or a week or two,
but in some people it goes on a long time.”
Putting a cold pack on your skin right after you've been pricked may lessen the severity of the reaction, Dieter adds.
Great. How Do I Get This Thing Out?
First of all, don’t grab the spines.
“It’s a natural reaction,” Dieter says. But “you’re better off not to use your fingers if you can avoid it.”
all too easy to make a bad situation worse, particularly if you try to
pull off pieces of cholla with your bare hands. Nobel once saw the
aftermath of this decision in a couple in Saguaro National Forest who
had fallen victim to the notorious teddy bear cholla. Initially, one of
the pair had become stuck on a piece of stem, and when his wife tried to
free him she too was snared.
more they struggled the deeper the spines went,” Nobel says. “They were
screaming for help walking along the road in an unnatural embrace,
holding hands with the tortuous joint.” Nobel was able to free the pair
by cutting the spines out with a pair of wire cutters.
Beware the teddy bear cholla. Photo by Raul Puente-Martinez.
also recommends removing the chunk of stem the spines are attached to
before dealing with the individual prickers, as he did on the occasion
in Mexico when his friend's lip became a pincushion. Use a pair of scissors or pliers
to clip the spines attached to the stem, leaving about half-inch
segments of spine behind in your skin, he advises. You can also use the
teeth of a comb to work the stem and some of the spines free. If the
spines are embedded in your hand and you don't have any tools handy, you
can also try bending over, stepping on the stem joint, and tugging your
hand free, although this will likely cause a bit more bleeding as the
spines are pulled away.
you should do next depends on the kind of spine you're dealing with.
You can try working larger, needle-like spines out with a pair of tweezers.
The straight spines found on cactuses like the saguaro are the easiest
to pull free, while barbed cholla spears or hooked spines like those
found on barrel cactuses will—not surprisingly—take a little more work.
spines will often break when you try to remove them, leaving pieces
lodged under the skin. “You’ll know if you haven’t gotten it all because
[the area] will remain sensitive to the touch,” Trager says.
can try digging around with tweezers or a needle to excavate the spine
fragment, but they can be translucent and hard to discern. "Often you'll
do more damage trying to poke around with a needle than the spine
itself did," Trager says. "Unless you can actually see the broken base
of the spine just under the skin or something it might not be worth
doing it." Soaking in a warm bath with Epsom salt can relieve some of the pain from embedded spines, he says.
Youch. Photo by John Trager.
tiny glochids are particularly tricky to remove, and it's easy to end
up with dozens or more stuck in your skin if you touch a cholla or
related cactus. When Puente-Martinez finds himself in this situation, he
likes to soften the tiny barbs by running the afflicted limb under warm
water. He then scrapes the bristles off with a knife,
although this technique can leave the tips behind in your skin.
"They're going to bother you for awhile," he admits. He's found that
tiny tweezers such as those that come with a Swiss Army Knife are ideal
for plucking stubborn glochids; the larger tweezers that many people
keep in their bathrooms seem to be less suited for grasping the tiny
prickles. A magnifying glass comes in handy for this work, too. You can
also use something sticky like duct tape to tug the barbs out of your skin.
you can’t get all the spines or barbs out, don’t worry. In most cases,
they will disintegrate inside your body or eventually be pushed out.
Whatever, I'm Just Going to Pull It out With My Teeth.
himself has been known to use his teeth to remove spines when he
doesn’t have any other tools handy. But you… really shouldn’t.
Remember that painful reaction that the glochids can sometimes bring on?
just say you’ve hit a cactus with your wrist or your arm, and you reach
down with your mouth to pull [the spine] out and spit it out,” Dieter
says. “You might get the spine, but the glochid might then stick in your
tongue, or in your lip, and then you’re going to have that reaction in
your mouth or in your lip and you won’t be a happy camper.”
The aptly-named feather cactus (Mammillaria plumosa) has soft spines that diffuse sunlight. Photo by John Trager/Raquel Folgado.
painful possibility is that the barb will embed itself in your throat,
which is exactly what once happened to Puente-Martinez (and is the
reason why he strongly recommends you do not try this method at home, or
ever). He had gently grabbed the spine with his teeth and was just
about to spit it out when one of the people working on the plants nearby
asked him a question.
turned around and swallowed the little glochid,” he says. “I had it
there for a couple of days; it was really bothering me.” He finally
dislodged the glochid by chewing bread. His theory is that as your
saliva moistens the blob of bread, it becomes sticky enough to pull out
trick served him well again when he attended a
conference and one the other attendees ordered prickly pears for lunch.
Apparently, the fruit had not been cleaned quite thoroughly enough, and
the man wound up with a glochid lodged in the roof of his mouth.
Puente-Martinez advised him to start eating the white bread the server
had brought out earlier. After four or five slices, the offending
glochid came away.
This Is the Part Where You Tell Me Cactuses Aren't All Bad, Isn't It?
Of course! For one thing, they’re pretty cool to look at.
cacti have significant aesthetic appeal to a lot of people, which has
caused cactus societies to spring up around the world,” Trager notes. In
fact, the flowers of cactuses tend to be intensely bright and vivid
thanks to the same betalain pigments found in beets and a few other
are a few cactuses that are actually soft enough to pet (if you do it
the right way), such as the feather cactus. This Mexican cactus uses
tiny spines that resemble ostrich feathers to diffuse oncoming light,
Trager says. “Usually there’s one way to pet a cactus that is pleasant,”
And in years past, cactus spines were used as phonograph needles.
importantly, cactuses are a critical part of desert ecosystems. Grass
in the desert is sparse so the fleshy stems and fruits of cactuses are
the main source of food for many animals such as jackrabbits and
javelinas. Doves, hummingbirds, and many other birds and bats rely on
their nectar and pollen. Additionally, the fruits and flesh are pretty
tasty when they’ve been properly de-spined.
“So there’s lots of ways to love cacti,” Trager says.
Just try to admire them from a distance.
A cactus in bloom. Photo from Flickr user Wilferd Duckitt.