Growing Ocotillo - January 14, 2004
Jeff Schalau, County Director, Agent, Agriculture & Natural Resources
Arizona Cooperative Extension, Yavapai County

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) is a unique native desert plant with low-branching, leafy, whip like canes. Ocotillos can grow to 15 feet in height and as wide. In spring, it is topped with bright orange-red, tubular flowers. They are typically leafless most of the year, but produce many leaves after significant precipitation. During periods of drought, ocotillos shed their leaves to reduce evaporative loss and conserve plant moisture. Ocotillos are extremely drought tolerant and an excellent accent plant for residential and commercial landscapes.

Ocotillos are native to some areas of the Verde Valley where they are found on south-facing gentle to moderate slopes. This is likely due to their need for well-drained soils, heat, and relative intolerance of freezing temperatures. These foothill areas are called “localized banana belts” by climatologists. Ocotillos are reported to tolerate temperatures down to 0 degrees F and grow at elevations up to 6,200 feet. However, I would suggest trying to find a warm site with well-drained soils.

Ocotillo is not a cactus. It is a close relative of the Boojum tree (Idria columnaris) which is native to isolated areas of Baja California and Sonora, Mexico. Within its restricted range, the Boojum tree is very common and sometimes forms forests that dominate the landscape on rocky hillsides or flat plains. Ocotillo is often found in stands consisting of many individual plants. In the past, canes have been harvested and used for fences. The canes often took root and created living fences that leaf out and bloom (do not harvest native ocotillo-they are protected by Arizona’s Native Plant Law-more below).

Ocotillos are available from selected nurseries. In Arizona, landowners have the right to destroy or remove ocotillos (and other protected plants) growing on their land, but 20 to 60 days prior to the destruction of any protected native plants, landowners are required to notify the Arizona Department of Agriculture. The landowner also has the right to sell or give away any plant growing on the land. However, protected native plants may not be legally possessed, taken or transported from the growing site without a permit from the Arizona Department of Agriculture.

Transplanting of these desert plants can also be done the year around with knowledgeable care, but greatest success is achieved during March through May. Transplant 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 hotter southern direction. Well drained sandy or gravelly loam soils with light to moderate amounts of organic content favor root development of these desert plants.

To help prevent the newly transplanted ocotillo from falling over or blowing down in a storm, large stones may be placed over the root area (2-4 inches from the trunk). Sunny, open, unrestricted locations and those where surface water does not collect are best. Some degree of growth set-back is to be expected. Properly transplanted, however, ocotillos reestablish themselves fairly successfully. It’s not necessary, nor recommended, that the tops of any cacti, agave, yucca or ocotillo plants be pruned back when transplanting.

Ocotillos are a wonderful plant if you have the proper space and soil type. If you don’t have room for one, enjoy and appreciate the native ocotillo stands that exist in the Verde Valley. Also, remember the to contact the Arizona Department of Agriculture, 1688 W. Adams, Phoenix, Arizona 85007, (602)364-0935, web address:, for specific regulations, restrictions, permits, penalties, etc., before digging and moving any cacti, agaves, ocotillos, yucca, etc.

The University of Arizona Cooperative Extension has publications and information on gardening and pest control. If you have other gardening questions, call the Master Gardener line in the Cottonwood office at 646-9113 ext. 14 or E-mail us at and be sure to include your address and phone number. Find past Backyard Gardener columns or submit column ideas at the Backyard Gardener web site:

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Arizona Cooperative Extension
Yavapai County
840 Rodeo Dr. #C
Prescott, AZ 86305
(928) 445-6590
Last Updated: January 7, 2004
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