How to plant ocotillo?

Ocotillo Care: Tips On Planting Ocotillo In The Garden

The ocotillo plant (Fouquieria splendens) is desert shrub that produces a spectacle of bright pink flowers on whip-like canes. It is often called ocotillo cactus, but 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 long in nature but are more likely to get 6 to 10 feet in cultivation. Ocotillo is suitable for xeriscapes, rock gardens and warm climate container gardens.

Growing Ocotillo

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, although 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 plant has few pests and no known diseases, but watch for scale and sucking insects, which you can zap with insecticidal soap.

Planting Ocotillo

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.

Plant of the Week

Fouquieria splendens range map. USDA PLANTS Database.

Ocotillo flowers close-up. Photo by Charlie McDonald.

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

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. 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.

For More Information

  • PLANTS Profile – Fouquieria splendens, Ocotillo


Fouquieria Splendens

Whole PlantLeafFlower

Laurie Ortiz, Agro / Hort 100G Spring 2002

Family: Fouquieriaceae

Ocotillo is a drought-deciduous shrub. It can have anywhere from 6 to 100 wand like branches that grow from the root crown. It’s stems can grow anywhere from 9 to 30 feet tall with spines to 1.5 inches long. Leaves are thick and leathery and can grow out several times in a growing season depending on the amount of water available in a season. Ocotillo is usually found in AZ, NM, CA, CO, TX and Mexico where soil is well drained on rocky slopes, mesas, out washed plains and desert grasslands.

City slickers like it because it ads grace to their desert landscape and it does not take a lot of water once established. It can be planted it full sun. Propagation is easy by cuttings or seeds. But lets not forget the beautiful fire orange flowers it produces. These flowers produce a honey like nectar that attracts the Hummingbirds.

Ocotillo is available at most nurseries as bare root. It can be planted at anytime of the year. So next time your out riding in the desert and you suddenly see fire orange color appear from a brush most likely it will be the ocotillo.

The Fouquieria, also known as the Ocotillo, Coachwhip, or Candlewood,is endemic to Mexico and the Southwestern United States. Fouquieriasreside mainly in desert habitat. Some Fouquieria are trees with erect,stout, branched trunks, others are much-branched shrubs, and the Ocotillogroup which consist of schrubs with erect or leaning, mostly branchless,wandlike stems. The blades of the leaves fall early, leaving the stalksto develop as thorns from which the axils will sprout secondary leaves.

Fouquieria slendens posses showy flowers which make attractivedisplays. This is one reason why this is the only species of Fouquieriamuch cultivated. From the base it produces several to many erect orleaning canes from 6 to 20 feet, but more commonly about 6 to 10 feet. Inwarm desert regions the ocotillo is a favorite garden shrub. It is usedto provide grace and variety to landscapes. It is much used as an impenetrablehedge plant. One thing to be cautious about when planting the ocotillo,is that they can be dangerous, perhaps for children considering the amountof stout thorns which exist throughout the plant.

In the desert the octillo can stand leafless for many rainless months.During that time, although the roots are deep, obtain little or no water.This is possible because of the plants’ ability to conserve moisture. Theocotillo does not store a lot of water either, it simply is very carefulwith the little supplies it obtains. Another interesting fact about theocotillo is that it is the most cold resistant species.

-Chris Case Agro / Hort 100, Spring 1999

Among the gardeners’ guardians – the ocotillo

Ocotillo stems for a fence were cut from a plant that will grow new stems. Other stem-harvesting methods destroy the plant.


Tucson Botanical Gardens experts have enlisted one of the most potent security forces around — Mother Nature.

While burglar alarms, outdoor lighting and other anti-crime measures have their place, Mom has given Tucsonans easy access to cacti and other plants that will stab, poke, scratch and otherwise discourage the average intruder.

“The beauty of some of these things is, you could do a really dramatic planting by mixing these plants and have something that is beautiful as well as functional,” said Greg Corman, an award-winning designer of desert gardens. “You can create something that is very, very attractive and absolutely impenetrable.”

And some of the best don’t even need much water.

● At the Botanical Gardens, transients had regularly scaled the inviting, easy-to-climb fence out front to spend the night in relative comfort. A forbidding fence — say the barbed-wire Arizona State Prison look — was not an option, said Kenneth Byrd, the gardens’ director of horticulture. So the gardens’ staff designed a layered planting of intimidation for the front — prickly pears and agaves topped with ocotillos rescued by the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.

● For a security-conscious couple in Midtown, danger came in the form of a bedroom window facing onto the street. Corman installed several agave plants directly underneath the offending opening. It’s been such a success that the homeowners want to add more.

● When Pima County rebuilt and expanded East Skyline Drive several years ago, the project included walls to buffer noise in the surrounding neighborhood. Then neighbors worried that gaps in the walls might actually funnel criminals their way. Strategically planted cacti now stand guard. “It looks natural, but it’s still a deterrent,” said Sal Caccavale, project manager for the Pima County Department of Transportation.

For homeowners, the Tucson Police Department recommends placing thorny cacti and other desert plants under windows that might otherwise be accessible to an intruder, as well as along property lines.

You could plant some agaves or yuccas outside your fence to make it difficult for someone to scramble over.

When Byrd worked as a landscaper, he planted some ocotillos in 15-gallon pots inside the wall surrounding the home of a woman who had been plagued by a fence-hopping peeping Tom.

The concept has been around since the ’80s, said Tucson police spokesman Sgt. Mark Robinson. In police circles, it’s known as CPTED, for Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design.

Robinson cautions that plantings work best as part of an entire package of security-conscious measures, including the more commonly recommended ideas of trimming back shrubs that give intruders a place to hide and installing automatic outdoor lights.

“Say you have a window that is hidden by a wall or a fence,” Robinson said. “Obviously, you’re not going to tear down your fence so people can see in your backyard. That would be a good case for planting a cactus. . . . Once you do that, then you need to fortify the spot, like your front door, where you can’t plant.”

Among the obvious choices of vegetation to place under a window would be the barrel cactus, a name attached to several different squat and very spiny plants. The Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society regularly sells mature fishhook barrel cacti it has rescued from development sites. The prices are very reasonable.

Gray thorn — a native shrub that can reach 6 feet in height — is one of Corman’s favorites for securing a wall because it’s a great desert plant, as well as a vicious one.

Ocotillo fences — available in rolls — can be almost as intimidating as full-size ocotillos, particularly if you install a double roll of the spiny sticks. Plus, an ocotillo fence will green up and bloom just like its parent plant.

A homeowner should, of course, exercise common sense when planting thorny bushes and spiny plants. But Corman argues that many people are unnecessarily scared away from desert plants.

“The average 5-year-old is not going to mess with a cactus,” he said. “They know.”

” Nature’s security: recommended plants

• Barrel cactus, both straight and fishhook (Echinocactus, Mammillaria and Ferocactus species).

• Agave.

• Staghorn cholla (Cylindropuntia versicolor).

• Gray thorn, also known as lotebush or Texas buckthorn (Zizyphus obtusifolia).

• Ocotillo, including ocotillo fencing.

• Desert spoon (Dasylirion wheeleri), a particularly vicious agave that’s often found under the common name of desert spoon or sotol.

• Yucca.

• Prickly pear, both the purple (Opuntia santa-rita) and giant (Opuntia engelmannii).

• Sources: Greg Corman, Gardening Insights Inc.; Tucson Police Department; Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society

Fouquieria splendens

The majority of our cacti and succulents are shipped bare root. They may be a cutting, division or non-rooting plant. Our plants are packaged with care, utilizing varying protective wrapping (depending on the cactus or succulent), such as newspaper and/or Styrofoam beads within a cardboard box. The Cactus King’s soil mix is very light to stop moisture from lingering too long and causing illnesses such as root rot. As such, if your plant is potted, dirt may fall out during the journey. Loss of soil will not harm your plant(s).

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Success with wild-collected plants

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Ocotillos (Fouquieria splendens) are among the most exotic and lovely of the plants from the western Sonoran Desert and Baja California, with snaky cactus-like limbs (whips) and blazing scarlet flowers. Each spring, and after summer rains, the whips suddenly sprout small green leaves along their whole length. Leaves may remain for several weeks before turning yellow and falling off. Fortunately for gardeners in the Southwest, Ocotillo collected from the wild are capable of re-establishing themselves in landscapes, given certain conditions:

• Nursery Grown Ocotillos – Nursery grown Ocotillos do not require a State Authorization tag. Because of the regulations regarding wild-collected specimens, it might be a good idea to save your receipt when you purchase Ocotillo from a Nursery.

• Wild-Collected Ocotillos – All wild-collected Ocotillos from Arizona and California must have authorized State collection tags. It is illegal to sell or purchase collected plants without these tags. The tags are designed to show tampering, and should be intact when you purchase the plant. Plants collected from Texas do not need tags. Once planted, the tag can be removed, but should be kept to prove that your plant is not illegally collected. Purchase plants from reputable dealers and know their places of origin. Be wary of pickup truck and street corner vendors.

• When to Transplant – Ocotillos can be transplanted from the wild at any time of the year. There does not seem to be a significant difference in the re-establishment rate of large and small plants. Plants can also be increased by burying cuttings until they root. In some areas, living fence enclosures are often created in this way.

• Replant Ocotillos in the same season they were dug.

• Specimens which aren’t permanently planted right away should be temporarily planted in dry sand, either upright or at an angle, or laying flat with sand covering the entire plant. Plants can withstand having their roots exposed for a month or more, although this can affect re-establishment.

• Soil Drainage – Excellent drainage is necessary. Ocotillos do not grow at the bottoms of most valleys for this reason. Make sure that the new planting location either drains well to begin with or is made to drain well by amending soil with sand and gravel or by using raised mounds. A large hole is not necessary if the soil drains well naturally, but should be dug if heavy clay is encountered. Organic soil amend¬ment is not necessary. Large rocks should be removed prior to planting.

• Pre-Planting Watering – The planting hole should be filled with water and allowed to drain before planting. Not only does this create a good environment for re-establishment, but it allows you to double-check the drainage. The hole should drain completely within 2-3 hours. Place plant in the hole and backfill with native or mineral-amended soil. Create a volcano-like depression, known as a watering basin, in a 2-3 foot radius from the trunk. Water the plant thoroughly with a solution of Dr. Q’s® Plant Tonic and water.

• Guy-Wire “Staking” – Larger plants may require stabilization until they root firmly. Use guy-wires connected to stakes in the ground, attached to main whips or limbs with an expandable, non-abrasive connector like Black Spring Tree Tie or Stretch Tie. Do not use a single stake, which may blow over with the plant in a strong wind.

• Irrigation Systems – Ocotillos generally do better when not connected to an automatic irrigation system initially. The roots are not yet able to draw up water and nutrients. Provide an overhead spray of water onto the canes until they are saturated and water has begun to accumulate at the base once to three times a week for the first summer. A plant is said to be established after it resumes growth, usually in the next spring after planting. Supplement sparse rains by giving established plants a good soaking every month or so after established.

• Misting – Many experts recommend a light misting of the entire plant every few days during the first summer, to prevent it from drying out. This treatment is very beneficial for the first summer or if a particularly hot and windy period follows transplanting.

• Slow to Establish Roots – Ocotillos are sometimes slow to establish, sometimes taking up to two years to begin active growth again. On the other hand, some plants have been known to bloom while stacked horizontally in bare root piles. All in all, the plant is a very hardy one, and the majority of transplants will re-establish in time. Prior to root establishment, misting is the primary method for watering.

• Fertilizer – Ocotillos do not need supplemental fertilizer. Some use a mild fertilizer like Fish Emulsion or Dr. Q’s® Desert Plant & Cactus Food once a year, which sometimes results in fast, lush growth. Too much fertilization can discourage blooming and cause distorted growth.

• Pruning – If necessary to prune Ocotillo whips, don’t do it halfway. Remove entire whip at base of plant.

• Pests – The cultivated Ocotillo is not plagued by significant pests or diseases once established. If you have questions, visit or your local Star Nursery . You can also contact the County Cooperative Extension. Remember that the Ocotillo is a highly seasonal plant, losing and gaining leaves several times during the year. Don’t be upset if your plant is bare much of the time.

Common Names: Candlewood, Slimwood, Coachwhip, Vine Cactus, Flaming Sword, Jacob’s Staff
Genus: Fonquieria
Species: splendens

The Ocotillo has many interesting names such as Candlewood, Slimwood, Coachwhip, Vine Cactus, Flaming Sword and Jacob’s Staff. The Ocotillo is indigenous to the Sonoran Desert, which is located in the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico at latitude is 23° to 33° North and longitude 107° to 112° West.

The terrain of the desert is open and very rocky, and its soil is well drained. The elevation of the Sonoran Desert is about 5,000 feet. The average yearly temperature is 90° F, and the average yearly precipitation is less then 10 inches.

There are many plants indigenous to Sonoran Desert; one of interest is the Ocotillo, or Vine Cactus. The Ocotillo prefers to grow in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts of Southeast California to West Texas and south into Mexico.

The Ocotillo is abundant in the Southwest because the soil is well drained on rocky slopes, mesas, out washed plains and desert grasslands. The ocotillo is deciduous, drought tolerant shrub. From its root crown it grows stems that can be any where from 9 to 30 feet tall. These stems grow in an “S” like pattern making the shrub look like an inverted funnel. The stems are covered with spines that can be 1.5 inches long. The leaves of the shrub are thick and leather like and grow several times in the growing season depending on the amount of rainwater available. The leaves are narrow 2-inch ovals, which can sprout within 3 day of a rainfall. The leaves turn brown and fall off when water is scarce. When the leaves die the stalk and part of the steam become woody and form spines. In the spring the Ocotillo produces flowers, which are tube like and bright red. The flowers are 1/2 to 1 inch in size with 5 lobes curled into 10-inch clusters. They can be seen from March to June and even later depending on rainfall. The Ocotillo can be leafless for a long time, because the roots are deep and do not get much water.

The Ocotillo has adapted to its environment by shedding its small leaves during dry spells. It can also grow new leaves 5 days after getting water. It has a shallow, but wide root system, which it uses to gather rainwater. It produces food because the Ocotillo can perform photosynthesis during dry spells.

The Ocotillo is pollinates by hummingbirds that like the honey nectar it produces. They feed on the flowers during their travel north from Mexico to the mountains of the Western US.

The Ocotillo is very plentiful and not endangered because it’s the only Fonquieria to be cultivated. The plant is easily grown from seed and cuttings and sold as nursery stock. The shrub is often use as “fencing” because its spines stop people and animals from passing through. The Ocotillo can be planted at anytime of the year.

The Ocotillo is a desert success story. It is a plant that has adapted to its environment, and it is useful to both animals and mankind.

by Kaitlin K. 2003

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