Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens): Characteristics, Cultivation & Varieties

Ocotillo cacti (Fouquieria splendens) is a flowering spiny shrub that is native to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. It is commonly found in the Sonoran, Mojave, Chihuahuan and Colorado deserts. It prefers well-drained, rocky soils and open spaces like slopes, mesas, washes and desert grasslands.

This plant is actually a deciduous shrub and not a cactus, although it has similar features to a cactus including spines, shallow roots, stem photosynthesis and extreme drought tolerance. 

Ocotillo has a cluster of long, spiny stems that grow from a central base. These stems can reach up to 20 feet (6 meters) in height and resemble a bunch of spiky wands reaching for the sky. The stems are mostly leafless, but after a good rain, they’ll sprout clusters of narrow oval leaves that last for a few weeks or months until the soil dries out again.

Ocotillo produces vibrant red or orange tubular flowers at the tips of its stems. These flowers bloom in the spring (from March to June) and sometimes even sporadically during summer after a rainfall. The clusters of flowers resemble flames, hence the name “ocotillo,” which means “little torch” in Spanish.

While semi-succulent and a desert plant, Ocotillo is more closely related to the tea plant and blueberries than to cactuses. The plant is also referred to as buggywhipcoachwhipcandlewoodslimwooddesert coralJacob’s staffJacob cactus, and vine cactus.

This desert plant has developed some clever adaptations to survive the hot, dry climate. The spiny stems help deter herbivores, and the green photosynthetic stems allow the plant to continue producing some energy even when leaves are absent. Additionally, the ability to quickly sprout leaves after rain allows the Ocotillo to take advantage of short periods of moisture availability.

The ocotillo grows best in zones 8 to 11, and as far north as the Central Valley, or in a greenhouse where the temperature is controlled. It some traditional medicinal uses among Native American communities. The flowers and roots have been used to slow bleeding, relieve fatigue, and treat many ailments. Also the stems are sometimes used for fencing purposes.

How to Grow Ocotillo 

Ocotillo can be planted year-round with care. Ideal plants have been grown in pots from stem cuttings and from seed. Transplanting large bare-root plants has marginal success. They should be planted to the original growing depth and, as with cacti, in their original directional orientation: the original south side of the plant, which has become more heat- and sunlight-resistant, should again face the brighter, hotter southern direction. If their direction is not marked, success is again limited.

How to Plant Ocotillo Cuttings

  • Obtain a healthy cutting from a mature ocotillo plant, ensuring it has no signs of damage or disease. The cutting should be about 6 inches long.
  • Using sharp shears or pruning clippers, cut the stem at an angle just above where several leaves attach.
  • Allow the wound to heal by placing the freshly made cutting in a cool, dry location for a few days. This will help the cut end to callus over.
  • Once calloused, plant the cuttings in a well-draining soil mix and keep them lightly moist. With proper care and favorable conditions, the cuttings should develop roots within a few weeks.
  • Provide the cuttings with plenty of sunlight and warmth, as ocotillo plants thrive in hot, arid climates.