What are those plants that resemble a clump of spiky, crooked dead sticks on the hillsides of the desert? They are ocotillos, one of the strangest and most unusual plants in the Southwest of the United States (pronounced oh-koh-TEE-yohs). Ocotillos are common and adaptive desert plants, despite their amusing appearance. From southeast California to western Texas and south into Mexico, they flourish in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. They flourish on a variety of soils, at elevations ranging from sea level to 6,700 feet, and in close proximity to a wide range of other plants.
Because they branch heavily from the base and then very sparsely beyond that, ocotillos have a peculiar appearance. The majority of the time, the stems lack leaves. However, following a heavy downpour, plants will be covered in clusters of 2 inch long, narrow oval leaves. Until the earth dries out, the leaves stay attached to the plant before falling off. Depending on the amount of rainfall, plants might grow and lose leaves four or five times every year. Ocotillos without leaves rely on the stem-bound chlorophyll for photosynthesis. Ocotillos, like other desert plants, make the most of their circumstances and endure the worst.
The plant’s name, ocotillos, derives from the clusters of vivid red flowers that grow at the tips of its stems. Ocotillo is Spanish for “tiny torch.” Depending on the latitude, plants only bloom once in the spring from March through June, and then occasionally in reaction to rains during the summer. The flowers are pollinated by hummingbirds. Ocotillos are a reliable food source even when other springtime plants don’t bloom in southern Arizona since they bloom while hummingbirds are migrating north. \ Few industries use ocotillos commercially. For living fences, the stems are occasionally trimmed and planted closely together. They are also employed as eye-catching ornamentals for cactus gardens and desert landscaping, but because they can only withstand freezing temperatures of about 10F, they cannot be used in places with harsh winters.
What is the price of an ocotillo?
The cost of ocotillos ranges from $25 to $150. Smaller plants typically cost between $35 and $50, are 2 to 3 feet tall, and have 4 to 8 arms. With 30 to 40 canes and a height of 12 to 14 feet, really large plants can cost $250 to $300. The majority of plants used in landscapes fall into the middle range. Once more, we have established that a “average” homeowner/landscape sized plant is one that is between 8 and 9 feet tall and has 12 and 20 canes. These kinds of plants cost around $125.
We are unable to sell plants larger than roughly 3 feet tall via mail due to shipping size limits, but larger specimens can always be obtained via direct pick-up. If you need a larger plant of any kind, please schedule a meeting or get in touch with the general manager Jan Emming.
The fact that they are fresh is one solid reason to purchase an ocotillo plant (or a Joshua tree) from us. Instead of having them hanging around in the nursery for weeks or months before selling them, we typically dig to order. Many nurseries just leave plants like ocotillos and Joshua trees standing out with the roots exposed to the searing sun and drying wind since they can withstand weeks to months (depending on the heat of the season) out of the ground in a bare-root condition without seemingly dying. In order to give the impression that they are genuinely regrowing, which they rarely do, they may at best be shallowly heeled into a trench. As a result, an unwary buyer can end up with a plant that is close to passing away from dehydration. The plant itself frequently takes a few more months, or even up to a year, to die. Making sure your new plant is fresh, which we guarantee at D:FR, is the main approach to avoid this issue.
Digging the ocotillos with a strong root system is another thing we do with them here. All too frequently, those who initially dig the plants for sale to nurseries will lop off all of the ocotillo’s roots to six-inch-long stubs that are barely able to support the tree physically and metabolically. These individuals are typically Average Joe types who don’t actually have any botanical awareness or common sense on how to treat these plants for best viability. Because of how much easier they are to handle, ocotillos are sometimes seen being loaded onto semi trucks and being driven out of West Texas in the manner of cordwood. The ultimate homeowner will have a problem since at least 50%, if not more than 70%, of the plants will die because there are no longer any roots for them to use to either maintain themselves in the wind or to absorb water. Believe us when we say—and use your own common sense—that a $35 rootless ocotillo from the neighborhood Home Depot is not a good deal if it perishes. It will take three to seven years, even if it recovers, before the plants begin to develop properly once more.
The new owners are compelled to plant the ocotillo up to its “armpits,” which is the point at which the short trunk splits into the dozens of arms, in order to prevent the tree from toppling over in the wind. This further emphasizes the issue with ocotillos with no roots and the recovery problems they will face. As a result of encouraging decay in a part of the plant that is typically never exposed to moist soil, this is deeper than is optimum. This emphasizes how crucial it is to get ocotillos with a strong root system.
We try to leave each of the three to five major roots at least 18 to 24 inches in length when digging a larger ocotillo. The survival rate increases by around 90%, if not more, as a result, and the plants frequently leaf out within three to six weeks (during the warm growing season) and add new growth within a year. much better chances Even if you don’t acquire a plant from us, try to choose one that has the best chance of surviving. Before making a purchase, request to view the roots and inquire as to when they were dug and how long they have been in the nursery. You might contemplate purchasing with a decent amount of confidence that your new plant will survive if you feel that you can rely on the responses as being trustworthy and you can see that the roots are the right size for the plant.
Here’s how to determine whether an ocotillo is still alive: Pick any thorn on the plant that is close to a branch tip. Look underneath where the plant’s skin is now broken by gently bending the thorn back to one side or the other. The branch is alive if it has a vivid, lime-green hue and feels moist. (Since your lips are moisture-sensitive, you can break the entire spine off and touch the green section to your lip.) Sorry, but the thorn isn’t alive if it is yellow, tan, brown, or if a small cloud of dust appears from the broken stem as the thorn breaks. Try this technique on a few additional stems elsewhere on the plant; if they all respond the same way, the plant is dead. If additional thorns emerge green, this just indicates that a portion of one stem was dead and offers some hope.
Can ocotillo be purchased?
Ocotillo lends color and wildlife to desert settings. Consider planting this unusual, multi-stemmed desert native, which will flourish in your area, if you reside in a hot, dry climate. With its long green stems and vivid red blossoms, the lovely ocotillo makes a lovely backdrop element and is also ideal for luring birds to your garden.
Invite Birds with Ocotillo
The ocotillo, which is indigenous to the hillsides of southern and central Arizona, starts flowering in April and lasts until July or August. The flowers, which are crimson or reddish orange, are tightly clustered at the ends of the stalks and put on a stunning display. The swelling base gives way to canes that can reach heights of 12 feet or more. They can lean nearly to the ground, slightly arch, or stand straight up. Expect to see hummingbirds, orioles, finches, and other nectar-loving species swarming to your ocotillo.
Small, dark green leaves of the ocotillo are arranged up the cane and are attached to the stem by a long leafstalk known as a petiole. Only when the soil is extremely damp will leaves appear on the plant; when the earth dries out, they will go rapidly. Drying leaves turn a rich shade of gold and can create a beautiful display on their own. Depending on how much rain falls in your location, you can find that the plant sheds its old leaves and sprouts new ones up to five times in a season.
Ocotillos are frequently offered without any root at all, or bare. Expect them to re-grow their root systems and take up to two years to become established. Ocotillo plants grown from seeds and sold in containers with living roots are very common. These will grow fast and establish quickly.
Planting time for ocotillo is pretty much always between April and May, though. Ocotillos that have just been planted require watering every two weeks during the first summer and every three to four weeks during the first fall. Continue watering bare-root plants according to this schedule until they begin to grow normally. For fresh plants, a monthly watering in the winter is sufficient. Water your established ocotillo about once a month in the summer and only during prolonged dry spells in the winter for plants in the hottest deserts.
Only cut down dead or broken stems from your ocotillo plant to the base when the plant is not actively developing. Cutting high on living stems results in erratic, thin branches as opposed to the strong, single canes you need.
How quickly does an ocotillo grow?
This year’s wildflower bloom has ranged from marginal to a flat-out fizzle depending on locationbut another desert plant is coming to the chromatic rescue with brilliant red blooms busting out all over the Tucson valley.
Ocotillo a desert staple
The ocotillo is one of the most astonishing of the numerous strange and peculiar plants that can be found in our Sonoran Desert.
The ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), with its bundles of gray, prickly stalks, appears dull and completely lifeless during the dry season. However, the ocotillo miraculously and seemingly overnight transforms into a leafy green, orange-crowned flowering wonder when exposed to the warmth and moisture of our summer monsoon.
One of the clearest instances of drought avoidance in the desert is this transition from gray to brilliant green.
Green leaves sprout to photosynthesize when the weather warms up and there is a lot of rain, and flowers appear to produce seed for the ocotillo’s next generation.
To survive the dry months until the warm rains of summer return, the ocotillo sheds its leaves when the rains stop in September and enters a condition of suspended animation.
In the arid Southwest, Baja California, and northern Mexico, ocotillos naturally thrive. They thrive in all regions of the low, moderate, and high deserts because they are heat- and frost-tolerant.
Mature ocotillo colonies are spectacular. Older specimens can grow to a height of 25 feet and some can spread out to a width of more than 15 feet.
Plants grown in residential settings often measure 6 to 15 feet tall and 8 to 10 feet wide.
Retailers used to pick the majority of the ocotillo that was on the market from the desert. However, more are now being cultivated from seed in nurseries in order to preserve native ocotillo and increase transplant success.
These plants’ root systems are completely developed and prepared to spread out and take root once they are planted.
For harvested ocotillo, those that are dug up from the desert, however, transplant success is far from certain. Because they are frequently torn from the soil, the roots of the plants are frequently torn out as well.
This week’s garden demos will focus on “Patio Container Gardening.” The Wilmot Library, 530 N. Wilmot Road, will host the presentation at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, and the Oro Valley Public Library, 1305 W. Naranja Drive, will host it on Friday.
How to plant an ocotillo
Any help or instructions would be appreciated as I want to plant ocotillo before the conclusion of this rainy season.
Ocotillos are cultivated in much the same way as other shrubs. To make irrigation easier, choose a location that will accommodate the plant’s mature size and is near other plants with comparable water requirements. To avoid being planted too deeply, dig the hole only as deep as the roots. Put local soil and water in the hole. You can add more soil and perhaps a few rocks to the edge of the planting hole for support if the watering causes the earth to settle a little bit around it.
This should be all you need if the plant is little. You might need to stake the plant if it is considerably bigger and unable to stand on its own from the beginning. It is recommended to place three stakes around the plant and to tie each one to a long cane.
Make sure the knots aren’t too tight so that the plant can’t move about in the wind; with some movement, the plant will eventually learn how to stabilize itself. Stakes are often left in place for a year, although depending on the size of the plant and the growth environment, it can take a little longer.
Dead or alive? – checking for a pulse on an ocotillo
Now three years have passed since we moved into our home. The ocotillo is largely in the shadow, and even though it was in bloom the year we moved in, there hasn’t been much greenery or feathers on the top since. Is this ocotillo still alive? I read in your column that these plants can hibernate for a few years, but has the window for regeneration passed by now? Can we perform any tests to ascertain whether we have any time left? What can we do with it or about it if it is dead?
A: Giving an ocotillo some water is the best way to detect whether it is alive. In the summer, desert plants like this one will benefit from watering every two to three weeks, and it should begin to leaf out as a result. To check if there is any green tissue beneath the surface, you can simply lightly scrape the stems. That definitely indicates life. You have the option to pick it up, leave it alone, or replace it with another if you feel it is dead. These stems are used to make ocotillo fencing, which some people occasionally buy. Therefore, you could cut it into pieces and create your own.
How to encourage ocotillo blooms
A: About seven years ago, I planted two ocotillos myself. Despite having strange shapes, both have grown nicely from their starting size of roughly one foot. They both grow between 6 and 10 inches per year and turn green when it’s time, but neither has ever blossomed in the spring. While none of them is on drip, one is close to a drip line while the other is not. I very rarely water them. I have both fertilized and not fertilized my garden. It appears to make no difference. What actions may I take to promote blooming? They have branches up to a height of around 7 to 8 feet.
A: Fouquieria splendens, or ocotillos, are hardy plants that typically bloom in the spring. We refer to these plants as drought deciduous because they can grow leaves when there is enough water and shed them when there isn’t. You may monitor how frequently they leaf out to see how well they are doing because their capacity to produce blossoms is probably also influenced by the amount of water available.
The plant’s age and the quantity and length of active reproductive branches are the key determinants of blooming. The best course of action is to ensure that it is otherwise healthy by watering appropriately because they are plainly outside of our control. That indicates that between 24 and 36 inches fall every 14 to 21 days during the spring, summer, and fall. You can forgo the irrigation in the winter and let nature take its course. Unless you are growing it in a container, these plants can survive without fertilizer in their natural environment.
Are ocotillos blooming earlier?
A: This year, it seems like my ocotillos are flowering earlier than usual. Is this all in my head? Is this a common occurrence in the Tucson region?
Having said that, you are actually the greatest judge for your specific plants. We have microclimates, and there may even be minute temperature changes that effect plant growth inside neighborhoods, which is why.
People who live next to a wash, for instance, frequently experience colder temperatures because cold air flows downward. You can participate in a science experiment by keeping track of your plants’ flowering as well as other changes like leafing out, developing fruit, and dispersing seeds.
Such information is useful for illustrating local and worldwide variations in seasonal temperatures. Once you develop the practice of recording data on particular plants year-round, you will have useful information that can guide you in determining what is actually changing and what is simply an impression that might not be accurate.
Peter L. Warren is the Pima County Cooperative Extension and University of Arizona’s urban horticulture agent. You can email to with inquiries and requests for site visits.