Growing up in the lush vegetation of the Midwest, I imagined the desert, any desert, as being a place mostly void of life. When I first went to the Sonoran desert, I was astounded by the extensive flora I encountered there. I would later find out that the Sonoran desert has in fact much greater biodiversity than the rich green forests of my childhood. But life is hard in the desert, and while there is an abundance of life, the species that live there have evolved a variety of fascinating methods of survival.

The Ocotillo, (Fonquieria splendens) is a desert shrub that grows an average of ten feet high although has been know to grow as high as twenty. It has long, thin, woody branches that all grow up from the base of the plant. The branches have a waxy sheen that assists in sugar synthesis during the dry months. When there is enough moisture, the Ocotillo will sprout small green leaves along the branches. These leaves drop off leaving behind the petioles which dry into small sharp thorns.

Like many tall desert plants, the Ocotillo has a very shallow root system. It tends to grow on rocky, gravelly terrain where even shallow roots compete for space. While an individual plant may live upwards of sixty years, tall plants will often die when they topple over under the weight of their branches.

Because of its height, the Ocotillo plays a significant role in the shape and texture of the desert. But it is in the spring that the Ocotillo is in its full glory. In the spring the gray-brown branches burst into flame. Bright red tubular flowers attract migrating hummingbirds. The observant hiker who ventures to imitate the tireless bird will discover a drop of sweet nectar behind each red blossom.

Uses

In Mexico the branches of the Ocotillo are often used as fence posts. The straight stems are easily harvested. Unlike most branches that would die upon being cut, the Ocotillo’s desert tenacity continues after it is ‘planted’ again as fence posts. Because these fences often surround irrigated fields and gardens, the access water allows for new roots to grow, and at the right time of year, they burst into bloom.

Wax from the branches is also harvested and used in conditioning leather.

In the Southwestern United States Ocotillo is used mainly in landscaping.

Ocotillo

  • Genus: Fouquieria
  • Common Names: Candlewood, Vine Cactus, Jacob’s Staff, Flammingsword, Monkey's Tail, Devil's Coachwhip, (Spanish translation for Ocotillo is Coachwhip)1
  • Range: Extends from the Sonoran desert in Northern Mexico to Baja, up through Arizona and New Mexico.
  • Habitat: Prefers rocky ground, about 5,000 feet above sea level.
  • Leaves: Small rounded leaves, growth triggered by moisture.
  • Blossoms: 1" red tubular blossoms clustered at the end of branches.
  • Germination: Seeds germinate in May through June, dispersed via wind. Cultivated plants can also be propagated via cuttings.

1Thank you Lometa for additional common names, and the English translation of "Ocotillo".

Citations: Field Notes: Sonoran Desert, 1997. Pictures of plant and blossoms at: http://www.desertusa.com/nov96/du_ocotillo.html

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