the plant from outer space

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ocotillo
fouquieria spendens
fouquieriaceae

  • eventually to about 15-20' tall, about 10-15' wide

  • reddish orange tubular flowers on spikes in spring, sometimes in late summer or fall

  • low water (top zone)

  • FULL SUN 

  • HARDY TO ABOUT 10°F

  • NECTAR PLANT FOR NATIVE BEES, BUTTERFLIES, hummingbirds, and provides seeds for birds and mammals.

Perhaps you have been here long enough to not know how bizarre the ocotillo is. Not only is its form totally unique, but even the family, the Fouquieriaceae, seems to have been dropped from outer space (yes there are a total of 11 species of which ocotillo is just one). 

The life history of the ocotillo is also quite complex. This species has hedged its bets with several survival strategies: the ability to drop leaves upon any hint of drought (an ocotillo can grow and shed leaves several times a year), the ability for the plant to photosynthesize through the trunk when leaves drop, the ability to wake up from dormancy quickly and spread new roots when any moisture hits the ground, the arrangement of the stems that help the plant to shade itself...this plant is made to survive. 

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Many, many species depend on the ocotillo for food: nectar feeding insects like native bees, and butterflies, and hummingbirds depend on the dense spikes of reddish orange, tubular blooms that usually emerge in February in the low desert, or as late as May in the grassland and upper elevations, and can last a few months. In cultivation and in the upper elevations there is often a second flush of blooms in late summer or fall. Hummingbirds are extremely dependent on wild ocotillos as it is one of the only species that has a dependable and copious flush of blooms even in the driest years. The flowers are suited to favor the hummingbird, the primary pollinator, but some species cheat: carpenter bees and verdins will slit the base of the flower and steal nectar seemingly without pollinating the plant--actually, the carpenter bees DO pollinate the flowers by crawling about the inflorescence and in some places, like Texas, they are more primary to pollination of ocotillos than hummingbirds (hummingbirds do not migrate through those areas). The flowers are followed by seeds that are enjoyed by many seed-eating species of birds (like finches) and small mammals (like the antelope ground squirrel which also eats the flowers). 

Plants can get to an eventual height of about 15-20' tall, and about 8-10' wide. Usually they are somewhat smaller. They seem to do very well in a landscape that is irrigated moderately even though they are very tough and can live on rainfall. Plants that are watered (and mulched) grow much faster than plants living on rainfall, and can grow over a foot a year in ideal situations. They should be grown in full sun, and can take temperatures as low as about 10°F. They grow in areas naturally that get a little colder, usually in limestone which absorbs solar energy during the day and radiates stored heat during the evening. 

Plants are often sold bareroot, having been dug out of the desert (salvaged or stolen). They are also often broken up into individual canes and made into ocotillo fencing. This is a tradition in the region, but we feel that with all the development going on, threatening the habitat of ocotillos, we don't want to participate in selling plants collected this way. They also have a very low percentage survival rate, taking a number of years to die. We prefer selling seed-grown ocotillos which are smaller, but with a very high planting success rate (almost 100%). The plants will plant out at about a foot or two tall, but what is cuter than a baby ocotillo anyway? And why would you deprive yourself of the opportunity to watch an ocotillo grow from baby to adult?

Lacewings may put their eggs on the ocotillo and the resulting larvae are voracious predators of caterpillars, insect eggs, and other soft bodied bugs. Humans enjoy making tea of the flowers. 

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Katherine Gierlach