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Species Spotlight


Ocotillo

By Doug Moore

The wildfire that burned through Proctor in June, 2007 killed or damaged many plants. Maybe the biggest casualty was the splendid Ocotillo at the Proctor Trailhead that, along with a number of surrounding smaller specimens, was killed by the intense flames. Although I am now deeply saddened to walk by the charred giant, luckily, many undamaged, healthy Ocotillos remain around the mouth of Madera Canyon. Watching the Ocotillos flower this spring causes me to reflect on just how unique and interesting these plants are here in the Sky Islands.

Ocotillo, Fouquieria splendens, is the northern-most growing member of a small, unique plant family of 11 species that otherwise grows in Mexico. Its closest relatives are found in Sonora and Ocotillos remind us that much of the flora in our region has affinities with the sub-tropics to the south. Widespread across the desert half of Arizona, they are often common on rocky alluvial slopes and plains, such as the bajada below Madera Canyon. The elegant plants grow candelabra-like from a stocky trunk covered in a rough, fissured bark. Though often mistaken for cactus, Ocotillos are true woody shrubs with sharp thorns on whip-like, unbranched stems.

Ocotillos produce many small oval leaves along their stems and their habit of growing, then dropping, leaves several times a year in response to our desert climate is one of the plant’s most intriguing features. During the year, Ocotillo leaves appear rapidly from the semi-succulent stems within 24 hours after significant rainfall and become fully developed in five days. The stems then remain leafy for a brief period, usually three to four weeks. When conditions dry out, the leaves are dropped and the stems remain leafless until it rains again. Up to five or six leafy periods can occur per year, although only two or three are usual. Ocotillos also go dormant and remain leafless during the coldest part of the winter.

Throughout most of its range, Ocotillos bloom primarily in the spring. Conical bunches of scarlet tubular flowers producing copious nectar grow at the stem tips. Drawn to the sweet nectar, hummingbirds and carpenter bees are the main pollinators, but solitary bees, flies, butterflies, orioles, finches, verdins, and warblers also visit Ocotillo blossoms. Research has suggested that Ocotillo flowering-time has evolved in response to hummingbirds, which transverse a wide portion of the plant’s range during their northward spring migration.

Produced by the spring flowers, Ocotillo seeds germinate after the onset of summer rain. Mortality is high; only one seedling per one thousand survives to the following summer. Slow growing plants, Ocotillos reach maturity in 60-100 years and may live as long as 150-200 years. In retrospect, this makes the loss of the Proctor giant at the hands of human carelessness all the more tragic. Fortunately there are many more Ocotillos in the area to bloom with gorgeous spring flowers. The nectar and pollen they provide will continue to help attract and support the birds and insects that we visit the canyon to enjoy.


Photo by George West