Teddy Bear Cholla Wood (Cactus Wood) Hardscape Guide

There’s nothing quite like Cholla Wood in the hardscape family.

Miniature gnarled logs, perforated with lots of irregular holes – it may be empty on the inside but it’s full of character!

Truly, this exotic driftwood has a host of uses in the terrarium and vivarium world, but its special nature isn’t for every project.

In this article, you’ll find out where Cholla Wood really shines and how to use it.

Let’s go.

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What is Cholla Wood? 

Where most driftwoods come from tree branches and roots around the world, Cholla Wood is actually the skeletal husk of the Cholla Cactus.

Native to the deserts of Mexico, there’s a range of Cholla species (Cylindropuntia). 

Some plants in the genus can even be grown as houseplants! Though, I don’t think the wood is a legitimate way to immortalize an old cactus friend…

Naturally, the Cholla Cactus can grow large and form some irregular shapes. This is what gives Cholla Wood such uniquely interesting qualities. Each holey column bearing the characteristics of its former plant host.

Cholla Wood branches.
A selection of short Cholla Wood branches.

If you need a tall winding trunk or a short barrel branch – there’s likely to be a perfect cut if you can find it. Just make sure to buy from a reputable source. You’re relying on the wood being as pictured/as described after all.

Depending on the source and age, the colors vary from pale browns and greys to warmer reddish hues.

Image Credit: StargazerExotics on Etsy

Cholla Wood Uses and Benefits

1 | A Mount for Epiphytes

With the full lattice of holes – all in different sizes – Cholla Wood presents a diverse selection of planting opportunities.

Each is a little pocket in which epiphytes can be securely placed (or more likely glued, let’s be honest). It’s common practice to bundle the roots in with some sphagnum moss and then secure it to the wood.

Of course, the plant choice will depend on the conditions of your tank:

  • Semi-aquatic plants like Bucephalandra or Anubias can thrive both submerged in an aquarium or epiphytically in a terrarium. They look best when paired with a vibrant moss, e.g. Java Moss (which can also work in both).
  • Alternatively, Air plants are a popular choice that can be used to great effect in arid and tropical terrariums alike.

2 | A Habitat for Animals

Whether you’re adding Cholla Wood to a terrarium, paludarium or (more commonly) an aquarium, all manner of creatures can use it.

The hollow center makes a great hiding spot for reptiles, fish and crustaceans.

Or, the column itself is a lovely natural-looking perch in a tropical landscape. Particularly when it’s adorned with epiphytic plants and dripping in moss.

Maybe that’s just me?

Cholla wood branches
These branches will look great when I’m finished with them.

3 | A Source of Nutrition

To be honest, this final benefit is a bit of a double edged sword.

That’s because Cholla Wood is a softwood. Meaning, it will degrade over time in a moist environment.

Surprisingly, that is the benefit! 

The positive here is that the wood creates a biofilm as it breaks down. This nutrient-rich biofilm can used as as a food source for all manner of microfauna, and it’s popular as a booster for shrimp when placed in water.

The downside is that rotting wood is a potential liability if not treated properly. Realistically, it must be consumed by something as it breaks down, or it can quickly become a hazard.

Of course, in an arid terrarium this isn’t a problem – the wood comes from the desert after all – but in high moisture environments like aquariums and (to a lesser extent) terrariums, this can be a real problem. 

That’s why Cholla Wood is best in bioactive terrariums

As it breaks down, it can provide slow-release organic compounds for your microfauna cleanup crew to feed on – further seeding the environment.

In an aquarium, it’s recommended to change your Cholla Wood after about two years. Though, it’s going to last much longer in a terrarium setup (depending on the humidity and temperature).

Types of Cholla Cactus Wood

Cholla Cactus come in all shapes and sizes, so naturally you can expect a lot of variation in the wood.

As far as I can tell, they all seem to be labelled the same (so there’s not much you can discern from product titles alone) but it’s worth scrutinizing the images and description as best you can. 

This is important because the shapes/sizes somewhat dictate what you can do with them.

If you want a nice hollow cylinder with plenty of room and planting opportunities, you’ll have to buy one of the larger branches. It’s sometimes referred to as “Teddy Bear Cholla”.

The smaller branches are sometimes so thick that there’s little to no room on the inside.

Cholla Wood branches.
The Cholla Wood branches I picked up are good examples of the smaller varieties. One has no hollow at all.

Where to Find Cholla Wood for Sale

As exotic as it looks, it’s not too difficult to source Cholla Wood branches in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Buceplant makes the distinction between the “tubes” and the “sticks,” and sells some larger statement pieces too. 

How To Clean Cholla Wood

As with all driftwood, it’s a good idea to give it a clean before adding it to any setup.

You can never be certain what chemicals (or creatures) it may harbor – especially in a wood as porous as this one.

It also helps to remove some of the tannins which can leach into the water. Not so much a problem for terrariums as it is aquariums, but it can’t hurt.

The easiest way to prepare Cholla Wood is to simply boil it in a pan of hot water.

Honestly, it needn’t be for a long time, 5-10 minutes should be enough to kill any bugs. Any longer and you risk weakening the structure of the wood.

If your piece of Cholla Wood is too big to boil, I’d give it a good scrub with a toothbrush and soapy water. 

Over to You

Cholla Wood is a versatile hardscape material once you know how best to use it. 

How have you incorporated it into your designs? Let us know in the comments.

Or, check out the other great types of terrarium driftwood!

Frequently Asked Questions

Where does Cholla Wood come from?

Cholla Wood comes predominantly from Mexico, but it can also be found in some other desert regions in North and South America.

Why does Cholla Wood have holes?

The woody skeleton of the Cholla Plant helps with support, and the holes themselves help to keep it lightweight and strong.

Can you cut Cholla Wood?

As a soft wood, Cholla Wood is relatively easy to cut.

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