As its common name (Arizona pencil cholla) suggests, cylindropuntia arbuscula
is found only in Arizona, in the south central part of the state from the Phoenix area south to the border with Mexico. Stems are lightish green in color and very thin, usually no wider than half an inch (1.5 cm); only the Christmas cholla
has thinner branches, and although the ranges of the two plants coincide, they may be readily identified by their fruit. The pencil cholla has green fruit bearing glochids, while the Christmas cholla has smaller, bright red fruit, which remains on the plant for many months.
Cylindropuntia arbuscula spines are yellow-brown in color, up to 1.5 inches long and point downwards; there are between 0 and 3 per areole, most often one. The lack of spines on some areoles is another identifying feature; Christmas cholla has a generally denser covering. Mature plants reach heights of 4 feet, with hundreds of stem segments (2 to 5 inches long) sprouting from an upright trunk.