Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) is a distinctive, multi-stemmed desert native that thrives in hot, dry conditions. Long stems, called canes, emerge from a swollen base and can be 12 feet tall or more. They can stand straight up, arch slightly, or bend nearly to the ground.
Native to the hillsides of southern and central Arizona, ocotillo begins blooming in April and continues through July or August. The red to red-orange flowers are in tight clusters at the end of the canes and form a brilliant display. Hummingbirds are strongly attracted to the flowers, as are orioles, finches and other nectar-loving birds.
The small, dark-green leaves are arrayed up the cane and attach to the stem with a long leafstalk, or petiole. Leaves are present only when the soil moisture is high and are shed quickly when the soil dries out. Drying leaves are deep gold and can be a remarkable display themselves. These plants can shed and set leaves up to 5 times a season, depending on rainfall.
Ocotillos are routinely sold bare-root, often with no root at all. These individuals take up to 2 years to re-grow their roots system and become established. Seed-grown ocotillo sold in containers with a living root system are widely available. These plants are vigorous and establish quickly.
Although ocotillo can be planted almost any time, April and May are optimal. Newly planted ocotillos should be watered every week through the first summer, every 2 to 3 weeks during the first fall. For bare-root plants, this aggressive watering schedule must continue until the plant shows routine growth. Monthly watering in the winter is enough for new plants. Established plants need monthly watering in the summer in the hottest deserts, and only during long dry spells in the winter.
Prune only dead or damaged stems by cutting back to the base. Cutting high on living stems produces irregular, thin branches rather than the sturdy, single canes characteristic of this species.