The Ocotillo, Also Known As The Fouquiera Splendens


By Tom McDonald Smiling Dog Landscapes

Except for the saguaro, no other plant says ‘desert’ like the Ocotillo, hence it is widely used in Sonoran Desert landscaping. The upright growth of the canes gives the impression of fireworks, especially when topped with the bright orange flowers of spring, making it an excellent accent plant. 

Ocotillos are opportunistic. Most of the year they look dead but when conditions are right, they will spring to life overnight with leaves and flowers which disappear as readily as they appeared. Even without leaves, the plant can still make food with chlorophyll contained in its bark.

Ocotillos provide hummingbirds and carpenter bees with a reliable source of nectar. Hummingbirds especially benefit from the Ocotillo flower as they migrate north from Mexico, following the bloom cycle of the Ocotillo forests.

Traditional uses of Ocotillo are:

  • Fencing: canes stuck directly in the soil will often take root providing a living fence
  • Edible flowers used in salad and to make tea
  • Used medicinally to treat coughing, achy limbs, varicose veins, and urinary tract infections.

Ocotillos harvested commercially have a very high mortality rate due to the abuse the plant undergoes in the process. Wild plants are ripped out of the ground losing most of their root system. Bundled up and stacked like cordwood on a semi-flatbed, they are then shipped to nurseries throughout the Southwest. By the time they get to their destination, their mortality rate is at least fifty percent.

A frequent question about the Ocotillo is “How can you tell if it is alive?” First, look closely at the canes. If you can see some green mixed in with the grayish brown of the bark, the plant is most likely dormant. Another test is to grab the upper end of a cane and gently bend it down. If the cane flexes without breaking, the plant is alive. Sometimes, even if the cane breaks, the rest of the plant may be okay. Individual canes can become infected by the Ocotillo’s only pest, the Ocotillo borer. Specific to the Ocotillo, this beetle attacks distressed plants. Look closely at the point where the cane broke; if you see entry holes, sawdust and sometimes a pale flatheaded worm, you have an infestation. Brittle canes should be checked for borers, removed and destroyed.

Free Classes at Smiling Dog in February include:

Irrigation Class February 20th 

at 9:00 a.m. with Tom McDonald and Bill Roe.

Space is limited. Contact Smiling Dog Landscapes to reserve a spot in the class:

480 288 8749