Plant of the Week

USDA Plants distribution map for the species.
Fouquieria splendens range map. USDA PLANTS Database.

Fouquieria splendens.
Ocotillo flowers close-up. Photo by Charlie McDonald.

An ocotillo flower cluster and part of the spiny stem.
An ocotillo flower cluster and part of the spiny stem. Photo by Charlie McDonald.

Ocotillos and saguaro cacti.
Ocotillos and saguaro cacti near the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains on the Coronado National Forest north of Tucson, Arizona. Photo by Charlie McDonald.

A leafy ocotillo a few days after a soaking rain.
A leafy ocotillo a few days after a soaking rain. Photo by Mark W. Skinner @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)

By Charlie McDonald

What are those plants on desert hillsides that look like bunches of spiny crooked dead sticks? They are ocotillos (pronounced oh-koh-TEE-yohs), one of the most curious and unique plants of the southwestern United States. Despite their funny looks, ocotillos are common and adaptable desert plants. They grow throughout the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts from southeastern California to western Texas and south into Mexico. They grow at elevations from sea level to 6,700 feet, in a variety of soils, and associated with a variety of other plants.

Ocotillos’ funny appearance comes from the fact that they branch profusely from the base then very sparingly after that. The stems are leafless most of the time. But, after a good soaking rain plants will be covered with clusters of narrow oval leaves about 2 inches long. The leaves remain on the plant until the soil dries out and then they fall off. Plants can grow and lose leaves four or five times in a year depending on rainfall. Leafless ocotillos rely on chlorophyll in their stems for photosynthesis. Thus, ocotillos make the best of good times and survive the worst, a typical way of doing things for desert plants.

Ocotillos produce clusters of bright red flowers at their stem tips, which explain the plant’s name. Ocotillo means “little torch” in Spanish. Plants bloom once in the spring from March through June depending on latitude then sporadically in response to rainfall during the summer. Hummingbirds pollinate the flowers. In southern Arizona, blooming coincides with the northern migration of hummingbirds and ocotillos provide a dependable food source even when other spring plants fail to bloom.\Ocotillos have few commercial uses. The stems are sometimes cut and planted close together for living fences. They are also used as interesting ornamentals for desert landscaping and cactus gardens, but they are only cold tolerant to about 10°F preventing their use in areas with severe winters.

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