About the Journal
From Me to You
Calendar of Events
Things to Expect & Do
A Color Palette
Ocotillo: Fiery Beauty
How Do I Care For My
May Monsoon Prep
New Flowers &
Summer Tree Care
Pine Bark Beetle
Bark Beetle FAQs
Parade of Ponds
M E E T T H E N A T I V E S
Ocotillo: Fiery Beauty
by Evelyn Helm,
Ocotillo, coachwhip, candlewood
Is my ocotillo alive? It's a question that desert newcomers, having never seen such an odd-looking plant before, frequently ask. There it stands in their garden, without a leaf-a cluster of spiny stems seemingly bereft of life. But then we get a little rainfall and the nights turn warmer, and suddenly that drab, once-skeletal eyesore blazes with color.
The ocotillo belongs to the genus Fouquieria, of which there are only a few species in the world. One is native to the United States, found mostly on rocky hillsides below 5,000 feet from western Texas to southern California. It also jumps over the border into Mexico where two related species grow: the Mexican tree ocotillo and the bizarre Boojum tree.
Ocotillo provides a strong vertical element in the garden. It serves as a good foil in a cluster of cacti, its spare branches contrasting interestingly against their generally more rounded forms. Each plant is made up of many narrow, nearly straight spiny branches springing from the ground. There are few stems, and the braches often grow to 10 or 15 feet.
If grown from seed, ocotillos grow very slowly. A 5-foot plant requires ten years or more to be marketable. Most ocotillos sold for landscape use are collected from the wild, and deserve some protection to keep them from becoming scarce in our native landscapes.
Ocotillos respond quickly to changes in weather. After a rain leaves sprout above each spine, and the plant turns a lush green color. But the leaves often drop again as soon as a dry spell sets in. In the spring, the long stems are capped with brilliant red flags made up of multiple flowers that attract hummingbirds. During a wet season rapid growth may occur, lengthening the stems dramatically.
Ocotillos require full sun and excellent drainage. They may be watered sparingly, but are prone to rot in heavy, wet soils. Most people consider it best to leave them alone. They are hardy to 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
In Mexico, the tree form of our familiar ocotillo has thicker main stems and is more commonly branched. It grows rapidly from seed, and will bloom in two or three years, sometimes when only a few feet tall. In Arizona's low desert, the tree form needs some sun protection. It is also tender to frost. It does well in large containers.
The Boojum tree, another relative, is one of the strangest plants on earth. It resembles an upside-down carrot. Its single, erect trunk has many spiny side branches. In the wild, it grows only in Baja, California and in a small area in Mexico. It is legally protected and cannot be exported. It can be grown from seed if a source can be found. It grows very slowly, requiring over ten years to reach a foot in height. It makes a fun container plant in full sun, and will eventually attain a height of 15 feet.
So the answer is yes, your ocotillo is alive. Keep your eye on it, and before long you'll see for yourself why this plant is so well loved here in the Southwest.
Maricopa County Master Gardener Volunteer Information
Last Updated April 29, 2003
Author: Lucy K. Bradley, Extension Agent Urban Horticulture, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Maricopa County
© 1997 The University of Arizona, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cooperative Extension in Maricopa County
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