One of my favorite desert plants is the ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens). This queer plant is found growing at elevations of less than 5,000 feet in open, stony, well-drained soils and on rocky hillsides in the deserts of Southern California to Southwestern Texas and into Mexico. Ocotillo is widely used by gardeners as urban and suburban plantings in the Southwest deserts.
Ocotillo (meaning little torch in Spanish) plants have up to 75 long, cane-like, unbranching stems growing from a single locus. The tips of the canes have clusters of bright red blossoms. Each flower has five petals that are united into a cylindrical corolla. The five lobes on the top of the corolla are curled back. The sepals are reddish and 14 to 19 red stamens protrude beyond the corolla.
After rains, fleshy green leaves appear on the thorny stems. Once the soil dries, the leaves turn brown and fall. Without leaves, the plant photosynthesizes using chlorophyll in the green bark on the stems and is semi-dormant during these dry periods. When rains once again return, the cycle of leaf growth and dropping repeats, often several times in a year depending on weather conditions. As the leaves on the stems of new growth fall, their petioles and midribs become the thorns.
This strange plant is classified as both a wildflower and a shrub, depending on the reference. With its leafless stems, unusual growth profile and desert habitat, ocotillo is often thought by the casual observer to be a cactus. In reality it is not a member of the cactus family, rather is more closely related to the primrose and olive families.
Native Americans used the stems in building huts and as supports for ramadas. The flowers were eaten. When planted close together in rows the stems take root and make living fences. The flowers also yield a waxy substance that even today is prepared into a commercial dressing for belts and leather.
Ocotillo has many colloquial names including slimwood, Jacob’s staff, candlewood, flaming sword and coachwhip.
Odd, yet spectacular, these specimens were growing at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson AZ and as suburban plantings in Green Valley AZ.