The long thin stems (thinnest of any cholla) of cylindropuntia leptocaulis
are at most half an inch across (usually a quarter of an inch) but the sharp and thick spines may exceed 2 inches, and are easily detached on contact. There is usually just one white or golden brown spine per areole, angled slightly downwards, but some plants are mostly spineless. Stems are pale green in color, or sometimes purplish, and smooth, without any pronounced tubercles. The plant forms a low shrub - up to 4 feet tall - that seeks out larger bushes for protection, and is widespread across three Southwest states (Arizona, New Mexico, Texas), up to elevations of 5,000 feet.
Flowers are yellowish and quite small, while the fruits are bright red and remain on the plant all through midwinter, hence the common name of Christmas cholla. The fruits are one way to distinguish this plant from the similar Arizona pencil cholla
, as that has dull green fruits.