They have thorns and grow in the desert, but ocotillos are not cactus. Here are some tips and answers to questions about ocotillos + a history lesson.
Ocotillo a desert staple
One of the most amazing of the many unique and unusual plants found in our Sonoran Desert is the ocotillo.
In the dry season, the ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), with its bundles of gray, thorny stems, looks drab and totally dead. But, given the warmth and moisture of our summer monsoon, miraculously and seemingly overnight, the ocotillo transforms into a leafy green, orange-crowned flowering wonder.
This transformation from gray to vibrant green is one of the desert's best examples of drought avoidance.
When the weather warms up and there's plenty of rain, green leaves sprout to photosynthesize, and flowers emerge to create seed for the next generation of ocotillo.
But when the rains subside in September, the ocotillo sheds its leaves and returns to its state of suspended animation, to wait out the dry months until summer's warm rains return.
Ocotillos grow naturally throughout the desert Southwest, Baja California and northern Mexico. They are frost hardy, and, of course, heat tolerant, growing in all areas of the low, intermediate and high deserts.
Colonies of mature ocotillo are impressive. Older specimens can reach heights of 25 feet, some spreading out more than 15 feet across.
Typically, plants growing in home landscapes range from 6 to 15 feet tall and 8 to 10 feet wide.
Until recently, most ocotillo available for sale were harvested from the desert by retailers. Now, however, to conserve native ocotillo and improve transplant success, more are being grown from seed in nurseries.
These plants have fully functioning root systems, ready to grow out and establish once planted.
However, transplant success is anything but guaranteed for harvested ocotillo, the ones dug from the desert. That's because they're often ripped from the soil, tearing off most or all of the plants' roots.
As a result, they must generate an entirely new root system.
Advice by John P. Begeman
"Patio Container Gardening" will be the topic of this week's garden demonstrations. They will be presented at 1 p.m. Wednesday at the Wilmot Library, 530 N. Wilmot Road, and at 1 p.m. Friday at the Oro Valley Public Library, 1305 W. Naranja Drive.
How to plant an ocotillo
Q: I am planning on planting ocotillo before the end of this monsoon season; any advice/instruction?
A: Ocotillos are planted much like any other shrub. Select a spot that will allow for the mature size of the plant and in an area with like plants that have similar water needs to make irrigation simpler. Dig the hole to be as deep as the roots but no deeper so it won’t be planted too deep. Fill the hole with native soil and water. If the watering makes the soil sink a bit around the planting hole, you can add more soil and maybe a few rocks around the edge for stabilization.
If this is a small plant now that should be all you need. If the plant is much larger and not able to stand on its own from the start, you might need to stake it. Three stakes around the plant are best, tying each one to a large cane.
Don’t make the ties so tight that there is no room to move a bit in the wind because a little movement is how the plant will develop its own stabilization over time. Typically stakes are left in for one year although it may require a bit longer depending on the size of the plant and the growing conditions.
Peter L. Warren is the urban horticulture agent for the Pima County Cooperative Extension and the University of Arizona. Questions may be emailed to email@example.com
Dead or alive? - checking for a pulse on an ocotillo
Q: I would like some info about our probably dead ocotillo.
We have lived in our house for three years now. The ocotillo is in mostly shade and although it was in bloom the first year we moved in, since then there has been no green and no feathers on top. Is this ocotillo dead? I have read in your column that these plants can go dormant for a few years but have we now passed the time for regeneration? Are there any tests we can do to determine life or death? And if it is dead, what can we do about it or with it?
A: The best way to determine life in an ocotillo is to give it some water. Desert plants like this will appreciate water every two to three weeks in the summer and it should leaf out in response to irrigation. You can also lightly scrape the stems to see if there is any green tissue below the surface. That is a sure sign of life. If you decide it is dead you can leave it alone, pull it up, and/or replace it with another, your choice. Some folks buy ocotillo fencing made of these stems and they occasionally take root. So you could chop it into sections and make your own.
Peter L. Warren is the urban horticulture agent for the Pima County Cooperative Extension and the University of Arizona. Questions may be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org
How to encourage ocotillo blooms
Q: I have two ocotillos that I planted myself about seven years ago. Both are oddly shaped but growing well from their original size of about 1 foot. They grow 6 to 10 inches a year, green up at the appropriate time but neither has ever bloomed in the spring. They are not on drip but one is near a drip line and the other is not. I water them very occasionally. I have tried fertilizing and not fertilizing. It seems to have no effect. What can I do to encourage blooming? The tallest branches on them are about 7 to 8 feet tall.
A: Ocotillos (Fouquieria splendens) are tough plants and can usually be counted on for blooms in the spring. Because these plants have the ability to put on leaves when there is sufficient water and drop them when it is dry we call them drought deciduous. Their ability to produce flowers is likely also related to available water so you can keep an eye on how often they leaf out to see if they are doing well.
The main factors for blooming are the age of the plant and the number and length of branches that are reproductively active. These are obviously not something we can control so your best bet is to make sure it is otherwise healthy by watering appropriately. That means every 14 to 21 days down to 24 to 36 inches in the spring, summer, and fall. In winter, you can skip the irrigation and let nature take its course. These plants do fine without fertilizer in their native habitat unless you are planting it in a container.
Peter L. Warren is the urban horticulture agent for the Pima County Cooperative Extension and the University of Arizona. Questions may be emailed to email@example.com.
Are ocotillos blooming earlier?
Q: I feel like my ocotillos are blooming earlier this year and I wonder if I am imagining it. Is there a trend for this in the Tucson area?
A: There are some groups such as the National Phenology Network (usanpn.org) keeping track of such things as blooming times and other phenological events for a wide variety of plants and animals. The data they collect via the citizen- and professional-science program Nature’s Notebook (naturesnotebook.org) is an important research tool for those studying climate changes on a regional and national level.
That said, you are really the best judge for your particular plants. The reason for this is that we have microclimates, and there can even be slight differences in temperatures that affect plant growth within neighborhoods.
For example, people who live near a wash tend to experience colder temperatures because cold air runs downhill. If you’d like to get involved in a science experiment, you can keep track of the blooming of your plants and other changes such as leafing out, producing fruit, and dropping seeds.
Data like this is valuable for showing changes in seasonal temperatures locally and globally. Once you get in the habit of keeping data on specific plants year round, you will have valuable information that can help you decide what’s changing and what’s just a feeling that may be incorrect.
Peter L. Warren is the urban horticulture agent for the Pima County Cooperative Extension and the University of Arizona. Questions and requests for site visits may be emailed to
When will my ocotillo start leafing out?
Q: Last fall I planted an ocotillo, which might have been a bad time to do it. Now all the ocotillos in my neighborhood have started to bloom and leaf out, and mine shows no signs of life or growth. Is my ocotillo worth saving?
A: Actually, ocotillos do take a long time to get started. Sometimes newly planted canes can take three or four years to leaf out. They’re a very unusual plant, and probably need some more time. They like lots of water, so you could try that as well. You can even water the dry canes once in a while. They often respond quickly after a rainfall. So have some patience and keep watering.
There is a chance, however, that your ocotillo might never bear leaves or those trademark red flags. The problem is that nurseries often dig up a few canes from an established plant and then store them inside the nursery until they can sell them. Sometimes the canes sit too long, get really dry and then never perform.
For more do-it-yourself tips, go to rosieonthehouse.com. An Arizona home building and remodeling industry expert for 25 years, Rosie Romero is the host of the syndicated Saturday morning Rosie on the House radio program, heard locally from 8-11 a.m. on KNST-AM (790) in Tucson and KGVY-AM (1080) and -FM (100.7) in Green Valley. Call 888-767-4348.
Dealing with a tall ocotillo
Q: I have an ocotillo in my yard that is about 20-feet tall. When it leafs out it does not leaf in the tallest two or three feet. It has not bloomed in several years. What can I do?
A: Your ocotillo is quite large and they don’t grow much taller than that. They also only live about 60 years under ideal conditions. It’s possible that the tallest parts are not receiving nutrients as readily as the lower parts due to age and because it’s a long way to the top.
These are tough desert plants that don’t require much care. Watering is only done sparingly in years when we receive less rain than average and excess water can damage these plants.
In nature, ocotillos do just fine without fertilizer in soils that have very little organic matter. If you want to try giving it a little slow-release fertilizer in early summer in the form of compost, that wouldn’t do any harm as long as you don’t overdo it. Distributing a half-inch of compost over the root zone and lightly watering it in is the most you would need.
Among the gardeners' guardians - the ocotillo
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.
"It's all thorns," he said happily. "The beauty of it is, it's impossible to get through. . . . It's also one of the best bird plants you can plant here. It provides great shelter for birds and food. . . . If you plant (gray thorns) from containers, you water them for six months or less, let them go, and they are on their own."
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).
• 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.
• 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
Ocotillios are known by other names
Some other names for ocotillos (Fouquieria splendens):
Lindbergh received a real cactus welcome in 1927
Flowers, platitudes and overflow crowds greeted Charles A. Lindbergh everywhere he went following his historic solo flight across the Atlantic back in 1927.
But a cactus welcome?
Yep, cactus — all fashioned by Tucson florist Hal Burns into a life-size replica of Lindbergh's plane, Spirit of St. Louis.
"Dad didn't wear gloves. He said his fingers were full of cactus," says Burns' daughter, Dorothy Myrick, 71.
Just months past his trans-Atlantic flight, Lindbergh popped into Tucson on Sept. 23, 1927, as part of a goodwill tour and to dedicate Davis-Monthan Field.
There to greet him was the thorniest "flying machine" ever devised.
"Lindbergh walked to the plane with my dad and said, 'Sure you don't want me to get in that?' " says Myrick, whose father died in 1982.
Ocotillo ribs formed the fuselage and wings, prickly pear pads were on the propeller and tail, and a barrel cactus substituted for the nose. White cholla flowers spelled out "Spirit of Tucson" on the fuselage.
"Dad never saw Lindbergh again, but every time an anniversary would roll around, he would get calls," remembers Myrick. "He never dreamed it would get all that attention."