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Growing Wild: Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)

Sometimes the spiniest plants bear the sweetest blossoms.

January 8, 2015


Octotillo blossoms. Photo by Stan Shebs.

I had lingered too long taking pictures of the descending twilight in the valley west of Sycamore Basin, just beyond the ridges of the Catalina Mountains’ front range facing Tucson. Now, I was paying for my photography splurge with a spooky solo hike out in darkness, my lonely headlamp illuminating just enough of the imposing cliffs and cacti silhouettes around me to make the jagged shapes appear posed and threatening.

To cap it off a late monsoon storm was working its way over Tucson, the wind sweeping into the mountains through Sabino Canyon, bearing the sweet scent of the oncoming deluge.

I have hiked in the dark on many occasions, but the atmosphere of the oncoming storm and howling wind this particular night turned the desert foliage into a trembling assembly of something ferocious—long-armed saguaro cacti and waving willows, quivering bear claw, and the rasping of Palo Verde branches blown together by the encroaching breeze.

My heart jumped when I heard a scraping just ahead of me, a rasping sshh-che-che…. I froze, flicking my headlamp to high beam. My light illuminated the lithe outline of ocotillo stalks against the murky blackness, the slender canes grazing against each other in the wind, emblematic of the species’ other common name, coachwhip.

We don’t often stop to notice the sounds of the plants that surround us. We see their curious shapes, sometimes notice their scents after rainfall, but their sounds? In this case the source of my momentary fear was a simple desert shrub—harmless and edible, too.

Ocotillo produce brilliant red blossoms clustered together in tapering bunches at the tips of slender, whip-like canes. The buds, nectar-filled flowers, and seeds are edible.

If you’re brave enough to take on the spines, perhaps armored with a pair of thick gloves, you could harvest the edible flower buds in springtime and early summer.

Written permission from the landowner is required in order to harvest ocotillo on private, state, or federal land, as the species is protected under Arizona Native Plant Law.


Ocotillo. Photo by Stan Shebs.

A handful of the blossoms steeped in water overnight will yield a lightly flavored juice, although the flower buds must be open for the nectar to seep into the water.

Ocotillo grow at higher climes than lowland desert cacti, sometimes in areas over 6,000 feet in elevation. The slender stalks, or canes, grow up to 20 feet high and are leafless, yielding jade-green foliage only after rains.

Saber-like spines protect the delicate leaves from marauding herbivores—and produce a startling, rasping sound when scraped together in a blustery autumn wind, as I discovered.

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