Ocotillos are singular desert plants that offer a striking accent in a landscape. Consisting of a number of stiff upright stems flaring from the central base like a giant fan, the plant looks like a bundle of grey-green sticks for much of the year.
The "Oh!" is for the stunning transmorgrification (that's a word from Calvin and Hobbes) ocotillo undergo after a rain. From dead-looking spiny sticks to lush foliage covered stalks tipped with spears of flame-like bright orange-red flowers. Wow. Worth having in any landscape.
Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) are uniquely native to the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, and are often found on limestone soils. Common names include ocotillo, desert coral, coachwhip, Jacob's staff, and vine cactus, although it is not in the cactus family. Ocotillo are so unique they get their own plant family, the Fouquieriaceae or Coachwhip Family.
The bright crimson-orange flowers are treasured by hummingbirds, and these tiny birds will go to great lengths to protect their nectar source. Native carpenter bees also pollinate the flowers, and a kinder, gentler bee is hard to encounter. Humans use the flowers, too. Flowers are collected, dried and used for herbal tea, or fresh flowers are used in salads and have a tangy flavor.
Planting ocotillo can be done year-round with care. Ideally, buy ocotillo that have been grown from stem cuttings or from seed. Large bare-root plants can be seen for sale beside some roads, but transplanting them has marginal success.
Always plant 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 theirdirection isn't marked, don't waste your money.
Ocotillo prefer well-drained sandy or gravely loam soils with light to moderate amounts of organic content. If you have caliche, 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 setback is to be expected. Properly transplanted, however, this native plant will re-establish itself fairly quickly.
You should water a transplanted ocotillo to help it become established. Once established, they can survive on eight inches of rainfall per year.
If you want your ocotillo to grow faster, go ahead and fertilize. Use a well-balanced fertilizer at half strength. 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. Don't risk over-fertilizing. Remember, these plants survive in nature without special pampering.
A word of warning, state plant protection laws are enforced. Contact the Arizona Department of Agriculture for specific regulations, restrictions, permits, penalties, etc., before digging and moving any cacti, agaves, ocotillos, yucca, Joshua trees, etc. For your own protection, purchase your plants from a reputable source.
Jacqueline has been writing about gardening in the Southwest for close to three decades. She is currently working on a book on growing and using the herbs of Father Kino's Mission Gardens.