Ocotillo

Fouquieria splendens

Ocotillo is one of the best known plants of the American deserts, its spiny, clustered stems creating a unique silhouette. Ocotillo may be leafless for many months, but leaves appear quickly after rain, often several times a year. It reliably flowers every spring (about March in the Tucson area) and is an important food source for migrating hummingbirds.

Established ocotillo needs no care. Transplants need watering until they become established. Plants are often dug and replanted, the smaller plants surviving more reliably than the larger. Make sure to grow in well-drained soil.

Notes: Ocotillo is a protected species under Arizona Native Plant Law. Written permission from the landowner is required in order to harvest ocotillo on private, state, or federal land.

Wildlife value: attracts hummingbirds when flowering. Carpenter bees and verdins will cut into the base of a flower to obtain nectar.

More Information

Weekly Plant on ocotillo

Cactus, Agave, Yucca and Ocotillo from Arizona Cooperative Extension

Planting and Care of your Bare-Root Ocotillo from Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society

Horticultural information from ASU

Horticultural information from Pima County Master Gardeners

Map of distribution in US

In books:

Native Plants for Southwestern Landscapes by Judy Mielke, page 151.

A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert by Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum, page 240.

ID Characteristics

 This plant is in the Fouquieriaceae - the ocotillo family.
ocotillo blooming at Academy Village
Ocotillo can grow to 30 feet with multiple stems, though 20 feet may be more usual. Even plants a few feet high will have several stems arising from a short trunk. In the Tucson area, ocotillo are found growing on slopes, where drainage is good.
ocotillo blooming at Academy Village
The stems are leafless in dry seasons, with vertical striping and many 1-1.5 inch spines.
ocotillo blooming at Academy Village
Leaves appear quickly after a rain, within three days in summer. These leaves, known as secondary leaves, grow on old wood on very, very short stems just above a spine. They are alternate with no leaf stalk (petiole) and are about 1 inch long, with no teeth or lobes along the edge.
ocotillo blooming at Academy Village
New growth occurs at the tip of each stem. The leaves of this new wood have petioles and are up to 2 inches long. Like the secondary leaves, they are alternate and without teeth or lobes.
ocotillo blooming at Academy Village
Gradually the petioles harden and the green portion of the leaf falls off. Each petiole becomes one of the spines along the stem. In the picture above you can see primary leaves starting to dry and becomes spines while secondary leaves appear just above them.
ocotillo blooming at Academy Village
The bright red flowers appear in a 10 inch long cluster in spring. Leaves may or may not be present. Each inch-long flower has 5 petals, fused together to form a tube. Fruit is a capsule that is not ornamental.