Ocotillo by Natalie Pastor

(Fouquieria splendens)

This succulent herb is also called coach whip, vine cactus, slimwood, candlewood, and flamingsword. It is a very beautiful and unusual plant. Ocotillo is slow growing, and it can take up to 30 years to grow to its maximum height of about 20 feet. Its growth is upright, radiating out from a central root. Sometimes its slender stems will bend to form arches. It requires drought, grows most often below 5000' elevation, is found all over the southwest, and is not a cactus. It prefers good drainage and rocky soil. It usually flowers in March, April and May after heavy rains. Dark, gray green leaves will appear along its spiny, thorny stems within days after a rain fall, but once the weather drys out the leaves will turn brown and fall off. The leafing out, flowering, and drying out cycle can be repeated often during a year. The flowers are beautiful scarlet red tubers appearing at the tip of the branches. These flowers attract hummingbirds, bats and orioles. Some birds in their quest for the nectar will destroy the flower. House finches for instance, will eat the ovary and drop the flower to the ground.
This makes a wonderful landscape plant and the perfect focal point for a drought tolerant garden. It also works well as a perimeter plant between your garden and the natural landscape. It is cold hardy down to zero, loves full sun and only wants an occasional deep watering. It must be allowed to dry out between watering. Ocotillo requires virtually no care. Propagate it by both cuttings and from seed. Keep in mind it is a protected plant in Arizona. Take your cuttings in the winter and place them in perlite or sand. Light water and mist, plus bottom heat should bring you success. The seeds can be collected anytime after the capsules turn brown. Seed germination rate is usually high however, so is the mortality rate. Be careful not to over water either the cuttings, seeds or any established plants.
Ocotillo has a long history of use among many native Americans. The Cahuilla Indians used its flowers to make a summer drink and its seeds were pounded into a flour to make cakes. The Hualapai used the powdered roots in a footbath for swollen feet and the fibers of the plant to build huts. The Papago would press the nectar out of the blossom and allow it to dry into a candylike treat. If you can reach them, the flowers can be eaten raw and make a nice addition to your winter salads.
As a medicinal herb it is used for congested fluid in the pelvis, hemorrhoids, benign prostate enlargement, bladder infections and tonsillitis. It is also useful in formula for glandular and lymphatic swellings, and pleurisy.
Harvesting Ocotillo for medicinal use is a challenge. You want the bark from older plants. Wear thick gloves and take no more than a two foot section. It should saw or cut off fairly easily and then cut it into smaller, more workable pieces. Be careful of thorns while working with this material. Then you must separate the outer bark from the inner core. Cut the bark into small pieces and tincture it. The usual dosage is 30 drops every 4 hours. It should not be used during pregnancy, and be aware that it stimulates liver function and should not be used in conjunction with prescription drugs. If you are interested in trying Ocotillo medicinally, it is recommended that you see a qualified herbalist. While it is not toxic, it does have many different properties which make it valuable. In my opinion this is not an herb to self-medicate with, seek professional help.

Copyright N. Pastor 1999