Ocotillo is one of those desert perennial shrubs that just keeps giving without demanding too much of your time.
With its towering slender canes and numerous orange/red blossoms, this desert native is hardy to drought, pests, neglect, and more.
How’s that for easy?
It’s one of those plants that you can just put in your garden and leave it alone. It thrives on neglect.
If you want to get the most juice from the squeeze, look into planting this bewildering cacti doppelganger in your desertscape.
Let’s dive in and learn how to grow and care for ocotillo.
Quick care guide: Ocotillo
|Plant type||Perennial shrub|
|Origin||North America, Mexico|
|Scientific name||Fouquieria splendens|
|Soil type||Organic, rich, loose, loamy, sandy|
|Soil pH||7.0-9.0 (slightly neutral to alkaline)|
|Sunlight requirement||Full sun during all seasons|
|Bloom season||March through June (Summer)|
|Colors||Lime green, white, red, green, orange, brown|
|Max height||20 feet|
|Max width||12 feet|
|Low temperature tolerance||10F|
|High temperature tolerance||100F|
|Ideal temperature range||80-95F|
|Humidity||Very low (10% or lower), spritz with water if needed to bump it, avoid levels too high because it can grow fungus if too wet|
|Watering requirements||Daily (younger plants), monthly (established plants)|
|Fertilizer requirements||None necessary, but if you must, use succulent or cacti food|
|Plant food NPK||10-10-10 or cacti food|
|Days until germination||2-3 weeks|
|Days until harvest||Seeds harvestable during the fall/winter for propagation or replanting|
|Bloom time||March to June|
|Speed of growth||Moderate|
|Hardiness zones||USDA hardiness zones 8-11|
|Plant depth||From seeds: 1.0 inches
From cuttings: 5-7 inches
From transplants: Same depth as original plant
|Plant spacing||10-12 feet per plant|
|Plant with||Salvia, Russian Sage, Golden Barrel Cactus, Artichoke Agave, Aloe, Lady’s Slipper, Crown of Thorns, Skullcap, Dwarf Sundrops, Fame Flower, Thrift Leaf Perky Sue, Santa Rita Prickly Pear, Agastache, Succulents|
|Don't plant with||Other ocotillo if not enough space, shorter plants that need sunlight, non-desert plants|
|Propagation method||From seed, cuttings, transplants|
|Common pests||Scale, mealybugs, rodents, sap sucking pests|
|Grown in container||Yes|
|Care level||Minimal to none|
|Best uses||Rodent fencing, privacy, hummingbird attractant, bees, pollinators, xeriscapes, desert scapes, southwest gardens|
Ocotillo, also known as Fouquieria splendens, is a southwest plant that can be found in Mexico and the southern US.
This plant is known for its bright orange trumpet flowers with tall cane stalks.
It requires VERY little maintenance, so it’s perfect for beginners or those that don’t want to spend too much time in the garden.
If this is what you’re looking for, Ocotillo can be the desert touch your yard is missing.
You’ll find that it goes well with other cacti or succulents for creating a desert landscape for your desert home. A lot of people grow this to add some green without needing a lot of work or water.
Arizona, California, Nevada, Texas, etc. It grows in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan desert.
While not a true succulent, it’s considered to be semi-succulent at 6500ft above sea level.
They thrive in arid landscapes with their unique look. They’re very popular in xeriscape gardens.
Ocotillo has a few other aliases you may have heard before:
- Vine cactus
- Jacob’s Staff
- F. splendens
- Little Torch
These desert plants grow upwards of 12 feet tall and over 10 feet wide on average, but a properly cared-for plant can go much taller.
They have red or orange trumpet flowers sitting on top of tall slender cane stalks. The plant does bloom.
Ocotillo looks like seaweed in the desert. It can be paired with other tall plants like cacti, which will complement the wavy canes of the ocotillo. The branches are spiny, but it’s not a cactus. It’s a desert shrub.
The leaves are simple, alternative, and elliptical. They’re about 3.5cm in length.
Secondary leaves are smaller. This plant thrives in the flat desert with other shrubs.
It’s deciduous, meaning that the leaves are completely dropped in the winter. They only grow in the summer and spring, when the orange flowers will blossom all over the slender canes.
Why grow it?
That’s a good question. A lot of people grow ocotillo because it requires little maintenance, is drought tolerant, and can withstand desert temperatures down to 10F before it starts to wilt.
It can be purchased from the nursery and then replanted in the garden with ease when it’s still manageable. It also doesn’t need any work nearly all season other than occasional watering or pruning.
Plus, it looks awesome. This plant can attract beneficial pollinators to your yard, such as bees and hummingbirds.
Is it poisonous?
No, ocotillo isn’t poisonous to the touch, but the canes can be sharp.
So always wear gloves to protect yourself. It’s spiny and can hurt.
Is it beginner friendly?
Yes, ocotillo is very easy to grow and good for beginners.
Once you get it set up and rooted, it takes care of itself.
You only need to water it and prune it. It may require some plant supports when it grows taller.
But otherwise, it’s hands-off.
How to propagate ocotillo
Planting ocotillo is very easy. There is an ideal time to do it and multiple ways to grow it.
You can buy then transplant ocotillo, or start from seed. Transplanting is the easiest and gives you a head start to enjoy those nice blooms.
If you start from seed, it’s going to take some time, so that’s why I’d advise you to seek out a reputable nursery and then buy a few to bring home.
It will easily get used to its new plot in your garden when done correctly, so don’t be scared. Just follow the steps outlined below.
Starting from seed
If you choose to propagate from seed, sow outside in the spring.
If conditions are unfavorable outdoors, sow inside a greenhouse or indoors.
Sow in well-draining soil where they can get full sunlight. You can use a cactus potting mix.
Plant each seed 1” deep with a light tamp of soil. They should be planted in their pots, each kept slightly moist with light mistings.
Spray the seedlings every other day. Cover with a humidity dome.
Germination takes up to two weeks, but the plant will need to be transplanted outside when spring comes. The temperatures should be fairly warm when moving outside.
Harden off by exposing it for a few hours each day to the elements outside. Exposed to full sunlight, then take it back in over two weeks. Increase the period of exposure daily.
Move into the garden when it’s acclimated.
Transplanting is the way to go IMO.
It skips the long germination period and lets you enjoy the flowers and the tall canes much more quicker.
Starting from seed is only for those who want the challenge.
Otherwise, just transplant by buying one from your nursery or garden center. You’ll be glad you did when you see the first few blooms in the springtime!
The ideal time to transplant is in March through May. This is when the ocotillo is actively growing so it has a higher chance of rooting in its new home (your garden).
Plant a bare-root stub in organic, loose soil. The soil should be sandy with plenty of organically rich substrate to help provide the nutrients it needs to root properly.
Plant only facing south if it’s been marked on the south side.
Don’t mix up the direction or else it’ll turn leggy or wilt. The plant may need plant support if you’re transplanting a bigger one (you may also need a helper).
Plant it with large stones covering the root zone (about 3 inches out from the ocotillo’s trunk). This will keep it anchored down so it doesn’t topple over.
If you’re in a windy zone, you need some kind of support. The planting area should be free of drafts and have ample sunlight.
Water should never pool near the root zone.
Grow from cuttings
If your neighbor or friend has a fully grown ocotillo, you can grab some cuttings from them and plant them yourself.
Note that ocotillo is a protected plant in some states, so don’t just go cutting random ocotillo you find in the wild. You’ll need at least 12 inches of softwood cuttings from a grown plant.
Grab a 1-gallon or 3-gallon pot, then fill it with rich, high-quality soil. It should have some degree of organic material in there to help root. The soil should also be well draining.
If the temperatures outside are within a respectable range, you can plant it directly into the soil in your garden instead. But if not, then use a container and sow the cutting indoors.
Carefully cut off the bottom 5 inches of foliage. Then supply rooting hormone if you wish.
This is the cut end, by the way. There should be no leaves at least 5 inches from the end you cut. Leaves that remain towards the tip are fine.
Put the branch into the soil and cover the section that you cleared. So it should be sitting pretty about 5-7 inches into the pot. Keep the pot in a full sun location with ambient temperatures above 65F.
You can put it in your garden if the conditions are nice. Place a water saucer under the planter. Keep the soil moist, but never wet. Water it once every other week in normal conditions. If excessively dry, water once per week. The water should drain into the saucer every time. If not, replant it.
The ocotillo is ready to be moved into the garden when the plant is noticeably producing new leaves.
Give it a slight tug to feel if it’s been rooted.
How to grow ocotillo
Here are some quick and dirty tips for growing this desert shrub. You’ll find that it’s very basic, just like most desert plants.
Ocotillo prefers arid, dry, and hot climates with full sun exposure. USDA hardiness zones 8-11 are ideal for this desert native.
If you’re in a higher zone, you may need to water more often. For lower zones, the plant must be kept in full sun away from artificial sun blockers like buildings or other plants.
The soil used must be well draining with some organic compounds mixed in.
This helps root development and will keep water from pooling, which may lead to root rot or fungal issues.
Use a potting mix for cacti or succulents. Mix in some organic plant supplements if it’s lacking. Use a loose, loamy, sandy substrate that’s not firm and won’t compact.
The soil pH should be on the basic side, with a pH range of 7.5-9.0 for ideal flower production.
You can raise the pH of your soil naturally using lime (dolomite or agricultural). Baking soda also works, but should be used sparingly.
The seeds should be planted 1” from the soil line and lightly covered.
If transplanting, it should be planted at the same root depth as the original plant. If growing from cuttings, plant at least 5 inches deep.
Each ocotillo should be clear from nearby plants because it can grow over 10 feet wide. This can make it compete for nutrients or even cover the light source of plant neighbors (which is why you may need to prune it).
If you plan to grow multiple ocotillos, space them at least 10 feet apart from one another so they don’t get into a tangled mess.
Ocotillo can tolerate temperatures as low as 10F before they start to suffer. Ideally, they should be grown in a temp range between 80-100F.
They grow in the Sonoran desert where temperatures can average up to 90F with minimal rainfall (less than 10″).
They can handle some temp swings as the desert is known for this kind of environment.
If you’re in zones 8 or higher, you should be fine. Just make sure it gets a full day of unfiltered sunlight daily.
Then it’ll thrive happily and produce those flowers for you.
The ocotillo shrub loves dry conditions. Low humidity levels that span under 20% are normal.
If it’s too wet, it may not produce the volume of flowers compared to drier conditions.
Ocotillo should be planted in a full sun environment with a south-facing direction.
If the plant is covered or the light is blocked by some other foliage or object, it won’t produce as many flowers in the spring. Make sure it gets plenty of sunlight- at least 8 hours per day.
Plant in a wide open area with no tall objects that can block precious sunlight.
The ocotillo is highly efficient and requires very little water to thrive. It’s drought-tolerant and will only require irrigation once in a while.
When you do water, avoid overwatering the soil because this can pool and lead to rot. The proper way to water is to spray the cane and keep the soil moist, but never wet.
If you’re in a hot and dry area, you can water once daily for new plants. For established ocotillo, only require watering once per month.
Only younger plants should be watered often. Don’t overwater larger plants or you can introduce pathogens especially if the soil is bad quality.
Plant food and fertilizer are unnecessary. Ocotillo is one of those plants that do well when left alone.
The more you mess with it, the higher chance of you hurting it. Don’t use plant food unless necessary.
It may even reduce the number of flowers you get seasonally. If you want more flowers, try not to use plant food. Remember That this plant is very tough and can handle itself!
Mulching is not necessary either.
The time you need to mulch is if temperatures are expected to drop below 10F. Add 2-3 inches of mulch around the root zone to help insulate it from the cold.
Remove the mulch in spring. Ensure the mulch never touches the trunk of the ocotillo because this can introduce pathogens.
Pruning can be done much less than you think. The plant only needs to be pruned when you see ugly or damaged cane stalks.
Remove the wood from the ocotillo using a sterilized pair of pruners (use rubbing alcohol).
When ocotillos hit the 3-year mark, they’ll need to be pruned around that time to keep them tidy. When pruned, the plant will die back. This is expected.
The plant will need some watering during this time. But don’t be alarmed. Even though it’s stressful on the plant, it’s necessary to stop it from wasting energy on unwanted canes.
This is why you need to prune, but do not do it so often or you’ll put your plant under constant stress.
Most ocotillo will do fine if left on their own. Just regular watering monthly for established ones. That’s all there is to it.
Prune ocotillo in the fall or winter when it’s not actively growing or producing flowers.
Ocotillo requires no maintenance other than watering and pruning. When you prune, use gardening gloves and a lopper.
Cut the canes completely off to the soil level.
Don’t leave a partially pruned cane as this can introduce pathogens. The more you leave it alone, the more it thrives.
So don’t mess with it if you don’t need to.
There is no overwintering needed for ocotillo.
Being that it’s such a hardy desert shrub, it can handle temperatures as low as 10F. If you expect that it’ll get even cooler, then you can keep it warm by applying a layer of mulch around the trunk.
This should cover the root system but never touch the drunk directly.
You can also use burlap wraps or other plant wraps. But for most purposes, you won’t need to worry about winterizing ocotillo.
Collect ocotillo seeds to save them for replanting!
You can harvest the seeds in late summer when the flowers start to fade and change into seeds.
The seeds can be stored in an envelope and used shortly afterward. Seeds should never be taken from native plants, only captive ones.
You’ll notice that the flower loses its color. It’ll quickly change to seeds. This is when you can harvest them.
Ocotillo can be grown in a pot if the container is larger enough.
You’ll have to continually get larger pots whenever the plant is rootbound (roots coming out of the drain holes). The pot should be one size larger than before. If you grow in a container, they don’t need any root pruning before you plant.
What container size for ocotillio?
For sizing, 5 inch pots are good for cuttings.
For younger plants, 5 gallon containers are suitable.
For larger plants, it varies. Size up when rootbound.
There are plenty of companions that go well with ocotillo’s staggering height.
Some popular desert natives include Salvia, Russian Sage, Golden Barrel Cactus, Artichoke Agave, Aloe, Lady’s Slipper, Crown of Thorns, Skullcap, Dwarf Sundrops, Fame Flower, Thrift Leaf Perky Sue, Santa Rita Prickly Pear, Agastache, Succulents, and more.
Any southwestern-style plants with a desert landscape go well with it.
Don’t plant with
You should never plant it with other short plants that need full sun. The tall canes will block sunlight nearby and starve them.
Only plants with hardy plants can tolerate partial light.
Ocotillo can be planted with other identical plants, but space them so they get plenty of room to thrive without competing for nutrients.
There are no particular pests that’ll finest ocotillo. It thrives in the desert and there are a few bugs that feed on plants in this environment.
So you have nothing to worry about regarding bugs.
There may be rodents that occasionally will feed on the foliage or flowers, but these can be ridden by using physical barriers or rodent bait. But foremost gardeners, this is not an issue.
Some insects have been seen on ocotillo, such as scale or other sucking insects. These can be ridden with insecticidal soap.
You may also see mealybugs which leave behind white web-like cotton. These can be removed with rubbing alcohol.
Other than those, you won’t find many ocotillo pests. It’s not prone.
This plant has no known issues. It’s more common to see pests instead.
There are many usage scenarios that you can utilize in your setup. It depends on what kind of look you’re going for.
Ocotillo does well in xeriscapes or southwestern gardens. It can grow tall to provide shade or privacy for your home if you want it.
They can also bring more wildlife to your yard. They can bring in bees, insects, and birds to help pollinate your other flowering plants.
Ocotillo can be planted in rows to build fences as well. They can be defensive against unwanted rodents because of their sharp spines.
Be sure to keep pets and people out of the zone as they can puncture skin easily.
Other common questions about Ocotillo care
This section contains questions from readers that are commonly asked about ocotillo.
You may find it useful. After all, this is a care sheet! Please ask your questions using the form at the end of the page.
How often should you water an ocotillo?
For established plants:
- Water once per month or when the plant droops. If it’s excessively hot or dry, water more often.
For younger plants:
- Water daily for about 10 minutes per day. Reduce watering when established.
Why does my ocotillo look dead?
This is likely because you pruned it recently.
When pruned, it’ll shrink down for some time until it adjusts to its new cut. With care, it should return to normal after a few weeks.
The plant is very hardy, so don’t be alarmed, but don’t prune when it’s not necessary. They’re common and adaptable desert plants.
Should you fertilize ocotillo?
No. Avoid fertilizing. Just give it high-quality soil with plenty of organic matter for it to feed.
Do ocotillos lose their leaves in the winter?
Yes, the leaves have dropped completely. It’s a deciduous shrub, so it’ll shed its foliage in the wintertime.
In the spring, the green will return so it can grow those pretty orange-red flowers for you. No need to fret.
Can an ocotillo get too much water?
Yes, if you overwater it, it can pool at the base. This can introduce root rot or fungus.
Never overwater your ocotillo. Only water when necessary. Use well-draining soil that doesn’t pool.
How often should you water an ocotillo?
Water weekly during the summer and once or twice per month in the winter.
When it reaches about 1-2 years, you can reduce watering.
How do I get my ocotillo to bloom?
Blooming is directly affected by rain. Too much or too little irrigation will cause the flowers to halt blooming.
They’re sensitive to water, and soil type, and need plenty of organic nutrients in the gritty soil. Low fertility is a good thing to keep it going.
Do ocotillos have deep roots?
They’re shallow. These plants should be watered with a hose by spraying the cane, not the roots, or else you may disturb them.
Are ocotillos hard to grow?
No, they’re easy to grow. They require little care and are good for those with little time to take care of their garden.
How long does it take for ocotillo to root?
Ocotillo that’s been replanted from cuttings, transplanted, or relocated takes a very long time to root. It can take up to 2 years to regrow their root systems. Once done, the ocotillo is considered to be established.
Can you grow ocotillo indoors?
You can germinate the seeds or cuttings inside your home or a greenhouse, but you’ll have to move it to your garden when it’s ready. Be sure to harden it off before you expose it to the elements.
How much does an ocotillo cost?
They cost about $10-$400 depending on the pot size. Larger plants will cost more.
Grow your own ocotillo!
Now that you know the basics of growing and caring for this desert beauty, go ahead and grow your own.
They’re perfect for beginners and suitable for any southwestern-style garden. Xeriscapes, rock gardens, desertscapes, etc.
They’re all suitable for this plant and will make a welcome addition to complete the look. If you need a tall desert bush, this is an easy, low-maintenance, gorgeous flowering shrub that’ll do the trick.
Ocotillo is the real deal for a no-frills, simple but gorgeous desert shrub.
Please let me know if you have any questions! I hope you enjoyed my guide.
I’ve always been interested in gardening, but I never took it seriously until I was forcefully gifted an orchid. This was what got me into the hobby and I’ve never looked back. I enjoy writing about it, but not nearly as much as getting into the dirt and sculpting the perfect decorative ornamental to enjoy for the times.