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Info Sheet PDF
Ocotillo

Fouquieria splendens

Mature Height*: 

8 to 20 feet

Mature Width*: 

5 to 10 feet

USDA Hardiness Zone Range:

8 to 10

Hardy to: 

10°F

Water Requirements: 

Drought Tolerant

Shade Requirements:

Full Sun

Native to:

Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts

Origin and Adaptability:

Embrace the rugged beauty of the American Southwest with Fouquieria splendens, commonly known as Ocotillo. Originating from the deserts of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, this striking plant is well-adapted to hot, arid climates. It thrives in well-draining soil, making it an excellent choice for xeriscaped gardens, desert landscapes, and water-wise designs. The plant goes by many names including Devil’s Walking Stick, Desert Coral, buggywhip, candlewood, slimwood, Jacob's Staff, Jacob Cactus, coachwhip, and Vine Cactus.

Architectural Form and Foliage:

The Ocotillo presents a unique and tall architectural form, with slender, thorn-covered stems that can reach heights of 10 to 20 feet. Its branches, which often appear leafless, sprout vibrant green leaves after rainfall, providing a striking contrast against the desert landscape. It is a deciduous plant; the leaves turn golden yellow in the fall, then drop for winter. The basal branching of the plant forms a compact cluster at its base. Its upper stems ascend vertically with minimal lateral branching, resembling slender poles. Adding to its unique morphology, the leaf stalks transform into hardened, blunt spines, with new leaves emerging from their bases.

Floral Display and Growth Speed:

In spring, Ocotillo bursts into a breathtaking display of fiery red-orange tubular flowers at the tips of its branches. These crimson blooms attract hummingbirds and other pollinators, adding life and movement to the garden. Ocotillo is known for its moderate growth rate, with new branches emerging from the base of the plant after rainfall events. With proper care, it can reach its full height within a few years.

Light and Water Requirements:

Ocotillo thrives in full sun exposure, soaking up the intense desert sunlight to fuel its growth and flowering. It is highly drought-tolerant once established, requiring minimal irrigation. However, it benefits from occasional deep watering during prolonged dry spells to encourage new growth and flowering.

Wildlife and Pollinators:

The striking blooms of Ocotillo attract a variety of pollinators, including hummingbirds, butterflies, and carpenter bees, contributing to the biodiversity of the landscape. Its branches also provide habitat and shelter for small desert creatures, further enhancing its ecological value.

Cultural Significance and Edibility:

While not typically used for food, Ocotillo holds cultural significance for Indigenous peoples of the Southwest, particularly in its range of the Mojave Desert, Chihuahuan Desert, Sonoran Desert, and parts of Colorado. Native tribes have historically used various parts of the plant for medicinal purposes, including treatments for respiratory ailments and as a source of dye for textiles. Ocotillo branches are sometimes used as fencing material. If planted, the branches sometimes take root and form into a living fence.

Challenges and Considerations:

As a low-maintenance semi-succulent plant, Ocotillo requires minimal pruning to maintain its shape and remove dead or damaged branches. It is important to plant Ocotillo in well-draining soil to prevent root rot, especially during periods of heavy rainfall. Additionally, care should be taken to avoid damaging the plant's delicate stems, which can be easily broken.

Integration into Landscape Designs:

Ocotillo's dramatic form, vibrant blooms, and cultural significance make it a versatile addition to a wide range of landscape designs. Landscape architects and designers can use it as a focal point in desert gardens, as a living screen for privacy, in container gardens, or as a striking accent plant in rock gardens. Its ability to thrive in harsh desert conditions makes it an excellent choice for sustainable, water-wise landscapes.

Designing with Fouquieria splendens:

For landscape architects and designers seeking to evoke the rugged beauty of the desert landscape, Ocotillo offers a unique blend of visual interest, ecological value, and cultural significance. Whether used as a standalone specimen or incorporated into larger planting schemes, Ocotillo adds a touch of Southwestern flair to any outdoor space.

*Height and width estimated for growth in the Tucson, AZ area. True sizes may vary.

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