Tuesday, June 28, 2011


In the late 90's, I snapped this shot in the early morning on my way back from Phoenix.  In the right hand corner, you can see the majestic beauty of the ocotillo near Picacho Peak.
Many people believe the ocotillo(oh-ko-tea-yo) to be a cactus, but it is not. Some may mistake it as dead twigs in the desert when it doesn't have its tiny leaves, but it is not.  Hopefully this post will clear up the many myths of this lovely plant.  Before I begin, I'd like to note that in the 90's, I saw this plant all over the Sonoran region.  Today, it's not as commonly seen here and I'm wondering two things.  In the early part of 2002 or 2003, these plants became popular as natural fence posts.  If you price them today, they are quite expensive and I am wondering if people haven't illegally gone into the desert and harvested these plants for profit gain.  Case in point, the above picture no longer exists.  I went back 15 years later to this same spot only to discover that all the ocotillo are gone from this particular area. I've been noticing more people planting them again around their landscapes but for awhile, they were noticeably declining. It is a popular plant for Tucsonans here.  I believe this plant has also been affected by the urban sprawl happening in our desert towns.  It is hard to watch as cookie cutter homes go up all over the place.  This is just something to think about before I begin my write on this unique plant.  
When rains are plenty, ocotillo will leaf out and become attractive sculptures in the landscape.  Hummingbirds love the orange red flowers.

So what is ocotillo? "Fouquieria splendens Engelm. grows in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. Common names include ocotillo, desert coral, coachwhip, Jacob's staff, and vine cactus, although it 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 indeterminantly at the tips of each mature stem. Individual flowers are mildly zygomorphic and are pollinated by hummingbirds and native carpenter bees." 

This was taken near a friend's house.  Look at the 90's old photo shots!!

Planting ocotillo can be done the year around with care. Ideally 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."  End of article. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fouquieria_splendens

Remember that it is important to buy these plants from a reputable source.  There has been a decline in these plants and I have seen it. This fence idea is a popular one all over.  It looks great, but it is also expensive. Some people have no qualms about stealing one from the desert and using it for their own selfish purposes. If you ever witness this happening, call your local police department.  This has been happening for years now to our Saguaro and Ocotillo populations.  It's called theft.  Poaching happens all over the world and the US is not immune to this problem....just talk to the rangers at Organ Pipe National Monument or the Sonoran Park officials.   So what is an ocotillo?   It is not a cactus but a member of the Ocotillo Family (Fouquieriaceae). There are 11 species of the Fouquieria genus, most of which occur in Mexico. The Ocotillo is the northernmost of these species. The Boojum Tree (F. columnaris) is a close relative occurring in Baja.

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