|Ocotillo during the monsoon season near Gila Bend, Arizona|
Fouquieria splendens (commonly known as ocotillo, but also referred to as coachwhip, candlewood, slimwood, desert coral, Jacob's Staff, Jacob Cactus, and vine cactus) is a plant indigenous to the Sonoran Desert and Chihuahuan Desert in the Southwestern United States and northern Mexico.
Ocotillo is not a true cactus. For much of the year, the plant appears to be an arrangement of large spiny dead sticks, although closer examination reveals that the stems are partly green. With rainfall the plant quickly becomes lush with small (2–4 cm) ovate leaves, which may remain for weeks or even months.
Individual stems may reach a diameter of 5 cm at the base, and the plant may grow to a height of 10 m. The plant branches very heavily at its base, but above that the branches are pole-like and only infrequently divide further, and specimens in cultivation may not exhibit any secondary branches. The leaf stalks harden into blunt spines, and new leaves sprout from the base of the spine.
The bright crimson flowers appear especially after rainfall in spring, summer, and occasionally fall. Flowers are clustered indeterminately at the tips of each mature stem. Individual flowers are mildly zygomorphic and are pollinated by hummingbirds and native carpenter bees.
Planting ocotillo can be done the year around with care. Ideal ocotillo plants have been grown from stem cuttings or from seed. Transplanting large bare-root plants has marginal success. They should be planted to the original growing depth and, as with cacti, in their original directional orientation. The original south side of the plant, which has become more heat and sunlight-resistant, should again face the brighter, hotter southern direction. If their direction is not marked, success is again limited.
Ocotillo plants prefer well drained sandy or gravely loam soils with light to moderate amounts of organic content. For caliche subsoil, break a hole through it so the plant has adequate drainage. Sunny, open, unrestricted locations and those where surface water does not collect are ideal for ocotillo.
To help prevent a newly transplanted ocotillo from falling over or blowing down in a storm, large stones may be placed over the root area instead of staking, which often scars the stems. Leave two to four inches space around the trunk. Some degree of growth set-back is to be expected. Properly transplanted, however, this native plant will reestablish itself fairly quickly. Transplanted ocotillo plants require irrigation to become established, but once established, they can survive on 8 inches of rainfall per year.
A well-balanced fertilizer at half strength will help ocotillo to grow faster. This will usually stimulate plant growth and vigor. However, do not apply fertilizer to newly transplanted plants. When using any fertilizer, apply it evenly to the soil surface over the rooting area and water well into the soil. Do not risk overfertilizing; this plant is adapted to harsh conditions without added fertilizer.
State plant protection laws are enforced; contact the state Department of Agriculture for specific regulations, restrictions, permits, penalties, etc. before digging and moving any cacti, agaves, ocotillos, yuccas, or other protected species. Purchased plants should be from a reputable source.
- Individual ocotillo stems are sometimes used as poles as a fencing material in their native region, and often take root to form a living fence.
- Owing to their light weight and interesting pattern, ocotillo branches have been used for canes or walking sticks.
- Fresh flowers are sometimes used in salads and have a tangy flavor.
- Flowers are collected, dried, and used for tisanes.
- According to Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West (a book published in 1989 by Museum of New Mexico Press), a fresh bark tincture can be made by chopping or snipping freshly removed bark into 1/2 inch pieces. It is useful for those symptoms that arise due to fluid congestion. It is absorbed from the intestines into the mesenteric lymph system by way of the lacteals of the small intestinal lining. This stimulates better visceral lymph drainage into the thoracic duct and improves dietary fat absorption into the lymph system.
- Relief of fatigue by bathing in water which contains crushed flowers or roots.
- Many native American Indian tribes report that the flowers and roots of ocotillo are commonly placed over fresh wounds to slow bleeding.
- Ocotillo is also used to alleviate coughing, achy limbs, varicose veins, urinary tract infections, cervical varicosities and benign prostate growths (Moore 1989).
There are three subspecies:
- Fouquieria splendens subsp. splendens Engelm.
- Fouquieria splendens subsp. breviflora Hendrickson
- Fouquieria splendens subsp. campanulata (Nash) Henrickson
Octotillo forest in the Santa Rita Mountains of Arizona.
Closeup of ocotillo thorns in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Closeup of ocotillo flowers in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Ocotillo covered with rare snow in Tucson, Arizona
Ocotillo in full bloom near Lookout Mountain, Phoenix, Arizona
Ocotillo with leaves outside Tucson Mountains after a rainfall event.
- Big Bend National Park
- Chihuahuan Desert
- Guadalupe Mountains National Park
- McKittrick Canyon
- Sonoran Desert
- C.Michael Hogan ed. 2010. Fouquieria splendens. Encyclopedia of Life
- Jepson Flora Project: Fouquiera splendens
- Calphotos: Fouquiera splendens
- Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) in Joshua Tree National Park
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