Caring For Ocotillo Plant

Ocotillo plant, bearing the botanical name Fouquieria splendens (foo-KWEER-ree-uh, SPLEN-denz), is a shrub species from the family of desert plants, called Fouquieriaceae.

The plant is native to the southwest United States, from western Texas to Southern California, particularly to the Chihuahuan desert and Sonoran desert, and northern Mexico, as far south as Guerrero and Hidalgo.

flowering Ocotillo plant

While the plant is most commonly referred to as the ocotillo plant, it is sometimes also referred to as ocotillo cactus. 

However, it is not a true cactus plant

Some other common names the plant is known with are:

  • Coachwhip
  • Candlewood
  • Slimwood
  • Desert coral
  • Jacob’s staff
  • Jacob cactus
  • Vine cactus

Ocotillo Plant Care

Size & Growth

The most distinguishing characteristic of the plant is the long, erect, pole-like branches. 

The plant branches very heavily at the base, but does not exhibit secondary branching – the long stick-like stems almost always remain unbranched. 

The stems are very thin with a maximum of 2” inches diameter at the base but can grow as long as up to 33’ feet in their natural habitat. 

However, in cultivation, they most commonly grow to 6’ to 10’ feet.  

The stems are partly green and covered with blunt spines, which are actually hardened old leaf stalks.

For most time of the year, the plant remains leafless, looking like a bunch of large and spiny stems. 

But, it quickly becomes lush green, filled with small ovate leaves, after the rainfall. 

The leaves remain on the plant for several weeks, sometimes even months.

When growing an ocotillo plant at home, choose a location where it gets sunlight to its south side as it has evolved to become more sunlight and heat resistant.  

Flowering and Fragrance

The candlewood plant produces indeterminate clusters of bright crimson, pink, or red flowers on the tips of mature, whip-like stems in spring and summer. 

Flowering is more abundant after rainfall and the plant may even produce the tubular flowers in fall if it rains in the season. 

Due to the flower color, the plant is sometimes referred to as ‘little torch’ or ‘flaming sword’.

Light & Temperature

Jacob’s staff prefers full sun and is not highly cold tolerant. 

It can only tolerate temperatures down to 10° degrees Fahrenheit (-12° C).

It is winter-hardy to USDA hardiness zones 8 to 11.

Watering and Feeding

The newly transplanted plants need to be watered moderately until they are established. 

The watering requirements of established slimwood plant are very low. 

They can even survive without water if they receive an average of 8” inches of yearly rainfall. 

Just make sure they are planted in an unrestricted location; where surface water does not collect or stand.

While this Fouquieria species is quite drought tolerant, extreme drought can make the plant lose its leaves. 

The loss of leaves is temporary though and they re-grow after spring or summer rain.

Soil & Transplanting

Desert coral grows best in well-drained, gravelly or sandy loam soil mixed with little to moderate amount of organic matter.

The plant transplants anytime throughout the year. 

But, you need to be careful while planting ocotillos as the transplantation of large bare-root plants is seldom successful. 

Ideally, ocotillos should be planted at their original location from the beginning, just like cacti.

Grooming and Maintenance

As long as the Fouquieria plant is getting plenty of sunlight and heat, it continues to grow without any problems and doesn’t even require any grooming and maintenance. 

However, prune dead and broken stems to improve its appearance.

How to Propagate Ocotillo Plant

Fouquieria splendens plant is propagated through softwood cuttings in the summer.

  • To do this, cut 6” to 8” inches long pieces from the top of the stems from the last season’s growth. 
  • Use a sharp knife to take cuttings.
  • Make sure the stems are still soft and bendable and are not affected by any pest or disease.
  • Remove the leaves from the base of the cuttings, from about 3” to 4” inches area, and then treat the cut ends with a rooting hormone.
  • Now plant the cuttings in pots filled with a mixture of equal amounts of perlite and cactus soil mix
  • Soak the pots in water; make sure it is at room temperature. 
  • Once soaked, take out the pots, place them on water-collecting dishes, and then keep them in a sunny location.
  • Keep watering the cuttings once every two weeks till early fall. 
  • Reduce the watering to once a month in winters. 
  • Resume to the regular watering i.e. once in two weeks, in the spring. 
  • Continue to take care of the new plants until they develop root systems.
  • While ocotillo plants are easily grown from softwood cuttings, they take several years to branch as much as they do in their natural habitat.

Ocotillo Plant Pest or Diseases

The plant doesn’t have any known disease problems. 

Although pest infestations are also not common in coachwhip plants, it is recommended to watch out for sucking insects and scales, which may use the plant as their food source. 

In case, they attack your ocotillo plant, treat with insecticidal soap.

The native carpenter bees and hummingbirds play the role of pollinators for this native plant of the US and Mexico.

Ocotillo Plant Uses

Fouquieria splendens is a good choice for rock gardens, desert gardens, succulent gardens, and xeriscapes. 

It will also grow in container gardens in warm climatic regions. 

The colorful flowers of the plant increase the aesthetic appeal as well as add architectural interest to home gardens.  

Due to their lightweight and sturdiness, the stems of the ocotillo plant are often used as walking sticks and canes. 

Ocotillo flowers, on the other hand, are used in both fresh and dried forms for culinary purposes; in salads and herbal teas.

In their native range, the candlewood plants are sometimes used to make living fences around gardens.

Different parts of the plant have also been used for certain medicinal purposes in some areas.

The ocotillo plant also has three subspecies including:

  • Fouquieria splendens breviflora
  • Fouquieria splendens splendens
  • Fouquieria splendens campanulata

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