By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
The ocotillo plant (Fouquieria splendens) is desert shrub that produces a spectacle of bright pink flowers on whip-like canes. It is often called the ocotillo cactus, but it is not truly a cactus, although it grows in similar conditions. The plant is native to the Sonoron and Chihuahuan deserts. The canes may grow up to 20 feet (6 m.) long in nature, but are more likely to get 6 to 10 feet (2 to 3 m.) in cultivation. Ocotillo is suitable for xeriscapes, rock gardens, and warm climate container gardens.
Ocotillo provides architectural interest and fantastic color displays of bright red to pink flowers. The ocotillo plant is a succulent with good drought tolerance once established and a cold hardiness of 10 F. (-12 C.). Growing ocotillo requires a well-drained soil in full sun. Ocotillo plant tends to lose its leaves when exposed to extreme drought, but leafs out in spring and summer rains.
Ocotillo really has no special needs and is an easy to grow plant provided it is used in a climate that can provide plenty of sun and heat. The plant may be difficult to locate at a nursery, even though it is grown in Phoenix and a few other locations. Ocotillo is a native plant and is protected, which means it is illegal to harvest it from the desert. In the home landscape, plant ocotillo, cactus, and a variety of succulents in a shallow container as a stunning desert display.
It may take six to 12 months for your ocotillo plant to fully establish and begin to leaf out and flower. You can then stop irrigating and allow the plant to acquire its moisture from rain and dew. Ocotillo grows wild in areas with minimal fertility, so it is not necessary to feed the plants more than once annually. Ocotillo care includes removal of dead and broken canes.
Ocotillo plants have few pests and no known diseases, but watch for scale and sucking insects, which you can zap with insecticidal soap.
Planting ocotillo should be done in a hole that is twice as wide as the root system, but no deeper. It needs to go into the ground at the same level in which it was originally growing. Most ocotillo that are found in nurseries will be bare root and should be well supported in the ground. Ocotillo plant is then irrigated once a week during the summer while it is establishing. Water rarely in winter and continue good ocotillo care by weighting down the area around the roots with rocks to prevent it from falling over and to conserve moisture.
Ocotillo Plant Uses in the Garden
Ocotillo is found in the southwest parts of the United States and is excellent as part of a desert garden. Plant it with drought tolerant ornamental grasses and sempervivum or sedum. It is a large, wide plant when mature so make certain it has room to spread its canes. Plant an ocotillo in a clay pot as part of a succulent display.
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The secrets of bare-root ocotillos
Reddish-orange flowers from an ocotillo can be seen blooming. (Photo: Maureen Gilmer/The Desert Sun)
Clark Moorten explained the mystery of the ocotillo early one morning at his garden. "Fouquieria splendens can drop their leaves and re-grow them ten times a year. New leaves will appear just 72 hours after a rain event, then drop after a short but vigorous growth period." This is certain adaptation to exploiting scant, irregular rainfall at any time of year.
For example, the ocotillos that grow wild can be seen at the east end access to Joshua Tree National Park off the 10 Freeway. As you drive to the park entrance the road goes uphill where the ocotillos suddenly appear. These big, woody desert plants prefer that elevation and will appear elsewhere in the park where conditions are the same, as is true in the Cholla Garden wash. They almost always signal areas of ground water springs, fault line water seepage, and dry washes with moisture deeper down. Despite incredible drought resistance, they do like water, and may be far more tolerant of it here than in less porous soils.
Each branch of an ocotillo is often called a cane. They have a corky wood bark that is another way to absorb rainfall into the plant when soils are not wetted enough to make a difference. It's said that drenching ocotillos with water will do the same, and explains why folks spray theirs up to three times a day in summer heat to wake them up from long dormancy and stimulate vegetative growth.
This is my largest ocotillo because it grows near the leach lines of my septic system. (Photo: Maureen Gilmer/The Desert Sun)
What I noticed back when lawns were far more common, was that the biggest ocotillos grew close to them. These bore their foliage over much longer periods than those in the wild or cultivated plants under parsimonious irrigation. These lawn ocotillos got water every day and a good dose of fertilizer nitrogen in the runoff.
Getting them established in your yard can be devilishly difficult. The bare-root specimens sold in garden centers are ripped out of the desert and sold dormant. It's traumatic and causes instant deep dormancy. Though they appear dead, these plants are just acting out another dry season defoliation.
Once the bare-root is planted, they cannot take up water until new roots form. Unless there's plenty of water starting Day One, this process can take over two years with older ocotillos that experience deeper shock. This explains the "permanently dormant" ocotillos that vex many gardeners with poor or absent foliage production they just need more water.
This may be the tallest ocotillo in Palm Springs, leafed-out fully in a very wet year. (Photo: Maureen Gilmer/The Desert Sun)
Before planting your bare-root ocotillo, remember that it's sitting dry on sale for so many months that it's thoroughly dehydrated. It needs to rehydrate to be able to make new roots. Do this by placing the base with its broken root stems in a big barrel of water. Let it sit for some hours to let the corky bark suck up as much as it can. It also saturates the root stems as is the tradition for bare-root fruit trees and roses back home in the early spring to revive them and start growth.
Double the benefit by adding a teaspoon of Superthrive to the water from the garden center. This contains root cell division/differentiation hormones that stimulate those first root initials that form in other tissue. A couple of evergreen tree stakes pounded into the outer edge of the planting hole also provides nutrition where soils are very lean.
In Arizona they use ocotillos to make living cane fences and dead-cane ramadas. Key to knowing the difference: Living canes bend, dead ones break when you bend 'em. Actively growing ocotillo rods are cut and planted a foot deep just one inch apart to root in ground. Wickedly spined, these fences were used in lieu of ordinary pickets because rabbits couldn't chew through them. As each rod roots in, it becomes a new plant, so hundreds of them grow into an impenetrable barrier. This also makes great deer fencing if long rods are available from pruning big ocotillos for a narrow, heat- and drought-resistant privacy barrier.
Ocotillos bloom during spring wildflower season at high and low elevations. (Photo: Maureen Gilmer/The Desert Sun)
In Arizona where ocotillo bare-root plants originate, the fences are naturally irrigated by late summer monsoons. Soaker hoses recreate this perfectly. With Arizona sourced plants, we must irrigate the ocotillo in the heat they've adapted to for good performance. This is important for ocotillos that grew up anticipating late summer rain unlike our locally wild ocotillos, which get humidity but rare moisture.
There is no more dramatic plant in the desert garden than Fouquieria splendens and its relatives that can be seen mature at Moorten Botanical Garden in south Palm Springs. These are curious plants that are the most outstanding in our gardens when topped with a crown of coral red flowers buzzing with hooded orioles and hummingbirds. Unless you know how to get them started bare-root, it's best to purchase small well-rooted ocotillo in five-gallon pots if you want to see growth and change anytime soon.
Dead ocotillos, or dead canes, are useful when recycled into ramada slats that discourage birds. (Photo: Maureen Gilmer/The Desert Sun)
Growing Ocotillo - How To Care For The Ocotillo Plant - garden
Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) is a unique native desert plant with low-branching, spiny, canes. Ocotillos can grow over 15 feet in height and as wide. In spring, it is topped with bright orange-red, tubular flowers. They are typically leafless most of the year, but produce many leaves after receiving substantial precipitation. When the soil dries, ocotillos quickly shed their leaves to reduce evaporative loss and conserve plant moisture. Ocotillos are extremely drought tolerant and an excellent accent plant for residential and commercial landscapes.
Ocotillo’s native range includes the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts from Baja, California eastward to the Trans-Pecos in Texas and south to Zacatecas, Mexico. Ocotillos are also native to some areas of the Verde Valley where they are found on south-facing gentle to moderate slopes. This is likely due to their need for well-drained soils, heat, and relative intolerance of prolonged low temperatures. Ocotillos will tolerate temperatures down to 10 degrees F. For planting in the Verde Valley area, I would suggest trying to find a warm site with well-drained soils.
Ocotillos are available from selected nurseries. Many of these are salvaged plants that either come from construction areas in Arizona or are collected in other states (many are from Texas). However, ocotillos are protected native plants and may not be legally possessed, taken or transported from the growing site without a permit from the Arizona Department of Agriculture.
Ocotillos can be transplanted year round by knowledgeable people, but greatest success is achieved during March through May. Like cacti and other succulents, ocotillos should be transplanted to the original growing depth and in their original directional orientation. The original south side of the plant, which receives more heat and is more sunlight-resistant, should again face the hotter southern direction. Well drained sandy or gravelly loam soils favor ocotillo root development.
People transplanting ocotillos should dig the planting hole wide enough to accommodate the root system and no deeper than the root system. After digging the planting hole, check for drainage by filling the hole with water. If the hole drains within an hour, it is suitable for planting ocotillo. Do not use organic amendments in the backfill. Broken or damaged roots should be cleanly pruned and allowed to dry for a week prior to planting. Container grown plants do not require any root pruning prior to planting.
Care should be taken to minimize air pockets in the backfill material. The Desert Botanical Garden of Phoenix, AZ recommends adding 30% coarse sand to existing backfill. They also recommend soaking the root system with a solution of rooting hormone prior to planting (see additional resources below). Work dry soil in amongst the roots of bare root plants to ensure that the backfill is in contact with the roots. There should be no need to use stakes or guys even though the plant is placed very shallow in the soil. However, if there is a potential for blow down on bare root plants, consider using large stones placed 6 inches or so away from the trunk to support the canes until they root. It’s not necessary, nor recommended, that the tops of ocotillo plants be pruned back when transplanting.
Too much irrigation following transplanting can kill ocotillos. In most cases, ocotillos should be irrigated weekly at a minimum during the summer months and twice per month during the winter. Once established (you will know when they leaf out routinely and start to flower which may take anywhere from 6 to 24 months) then you can begin to reduce supplemental irrigation. Most established ocotillos do not require any supplemental water during the cooler months and certainly no more than every second to fourth week during the hottest of summers.
You can tell if the plant is still alive by checking the canes to see if they are still pliable and have a greenish color to them. Containerized plants should become established at a much faster rate than bare root plants. Transplanted ocotillos require patience, but once established, these beautiful plants will enhance the landscape for many years.
My Ocotillo has become gangly and is starting to tip. Do I trim the canes from the base? From the perimeter or from the center? Advice please.
I don't know, maybe Kactus Kathi does.
No one here as ever pruned their Ocotillo?
My personal opinion is that there's no set way to prune an ocotillo. I've seen some canes taken back to the base to help even the plant up and I've also seen people hack it in half, taking all canes down to 3 feet high (which I thought looked very ODD, but it did promote a lot of bushy type growth over the next two years). If it was mine, and it was starting to lean, I'd take some of the height off AND some of the whole canes on the leaning side, just to help even it up some. You'll get new branches coming out of where you cut.