The first time I ever saw an ocotillo I was in Arizona in the Sonoran Desert during the monsoon season. They were these untamed stiff canes sticking into the air with thorns and little green leaves all over them and I just thought These plants are crazy nuts and I love them! Later on our way to West Texas we saw more and they had no leaves so I assumed they were dead. “Oh, it’s so sad! I wonder how they all died? It must have been a chemical spill on the road because we are not in a drought.” I expressed my sorrow to my traveling partner. Such a pity. I found out later that’s just what they do, they are not always lush with green leaves! That was the beginning of learning about the ocotillo and what a fascinating book of knowledge this interesting plant writes.
With no leaves they certainly look dead, like skeletons. How are they not dead? I wonder but also draw my attention much closer to investigate. Looking intently at the cane, just at the base of the thorn, I find the small streaks of greenish-yellow where they photosynthesize when they don’t have leaves. Desert adaptations, playing dead. The birds know all about this. A big fat white winged dove will land on an ocotillo branch and bend it fully down to the ground, too risky to not know if that plant is dead or only playing dead. If you want to know whether a plant is dead or playing dead, as a few of them are in fact dead, be the big fat dove, bend the cane all the way over in a big arc and let it go. It will either break or bounce back to life, then you will know.
An ocotillo branch is an excellent place for birds to perch while waiting for the feeder and they absolutely prefer them over most any other plant. Particular plants are of a certain placement or size to host most of the waiting birds, its hard for us to say exactly why. Like we just know a good sitting rock when we see it, these birds know the best ocotillos. The fat doves are there first and call the rest over to the congress: too soon to tell, too soon to tell. A pyrrhuloxia takes the podium: what-cheer, what-cheer. Clear the stage for the sparrows: tyew-tyew, tyew-tyew. The finch has the floor and he decrees that the cats are up to no good.
In addition to the preferred bird perch, the ocotillo can be used as incense, tea, fencing, or just appreciated as a groovy desert plant. Also know as ‘Coach Whip,’ no one around here calls it coach whip but you will see it called that in some books. If you think about it, the name coach whip really brings you back to the classic image of the wild west. I wasn’t there but the ocotillo was.
At one time I was told by someone who didn’t know any better that the ocotillo was a member of the sandalwood family and I repeated that nonsense for years because I didn’t know any better (this was before we had encyclopedia volumes in our pockets.) Well, it is not a member of the sandalwood family. A true sandalwood tree would be located on an island in the South Pacific and not in a West Texas desert. Instead it is a member of the Fouquieriaceae family (literally ocotillo family) which is a small but strange family of only 1 genus and 11 species of arid-adapted plants residing in North America. I learned this finally when I was offering the “raw sandalwood” up to a group of artisan incense makers as a material to try and work with. Whoops, not the first misinformation I have repeated but this is also how I learned differently. I still don’t know how to turn it into stick incense though.
If you have them in your backyard, try a little olfactory experiment. Look out across the desert and find a big fat ocotillo and walk over to it. Give it a little chat to see if it likes you and ask if you can try a piece. It won’t talk back to you in English, ocotillos have their own language, you know. You will need to listen to the language for a good while before you understand it, but if it’s answer is “no,” you will certainly find out soon enough. I was harvesting canes one time and found a really tall fellow and chatted him up but forgot to actually ask permission to harvest and the cane I lopped off stabbed me so hard and swift and perfectly square in the middle of my forehead so that blood ran down my nose. The answer this tall fellow gave me was obviously “no.”
Once you are past the cordialities, look on the base of the plant, the short stalk in between the ground and all the branches, and you should find flakes of bark or skin that look yellow and smooth, like thick waxed paper. Grab a nice piece that is shiny and consistently colored and tug it away from the plant. You obviously don’t want to pick the base clean and make it naked and risk harming the whole thing, but a small piece off the backside shouldn’t hurt. (The backside is the North side.) I also harvest sheets of bark from the elders after they fall, the oil in the bark is retained for many months after life has ceased.
Now take a lighter to the end of your waxed-paper-looking ocotillo skin and watch how the flame slowly crawls up the piece towards your fingers. Slowly burning, nice and steady and evenly distributed, so controlled that it’s not a fearful act to continue to hold it. Let it burn for a bit and then blow it out and watch the smoke billow from the tiny bit of hot resin that has pooled up at the edge of the flame. Smell it. The smell resembles sandalwood incense and this is where the misinformation initiated, but of course it’s different and should be described as such. Oh, how to describe a smell? It is soft and earthy, distinctly smoky without being overwhelming, like browned leaves and amber. Not fresh and new but something much older than a human lifespan. It’s a smell that holds a lot of secrets, the secrets that can’t be told because people didn’t see them. Does this description help you smell it?
They bloom in April or May, without fail, even in dry years. Mary Jane always says “the ocotillos are getting their lips” because the blooms are these short stalks of bright red that slice the blue sky open like fire sticks. You can harvest the flowers and add them to tea although I don’t because I would rather leave them to be enjoyed by the hummingbirds and carpenter bees and the eyeballs and also to be pollinated and make seeds that fall and spread down the rocky hillsides to start new baby ocotillos. I have never tried to grow them from seed but it sure would be fun to try, the babies are just adorable!
Some of them, ten percent maybe, will bloom again in the fall, October-ish. I have noticed no indication of which ones will bloom again or for what specific purpose. I have spent many years chatting with ocotillos but I still cannot understand what they say about blooming a second time in this later season. It’s quite the human mystery.
The Ethics of Wild Harvesting
Wild harvesting of plants to propagate and use personally can be accomplished in a legal and sustainable manner. It is legal in some cases to forage seeds, berries, leaves, cones or mushrooms for personal use from public lands such as any land administered by the National Park Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife or the lands designated as Parques Nacionales in Mexico but you should first contact the respective park service to ask specifics and or obtain permits.
–Do not collect plants or plant parts from public lands without the proper procedures in place.
–Never collect endangered, protected or sensitive species even on your own property.
–Do not enter private lands for any purpose if you do not have permission to do so.
–Harvest first from areas that will be disturbed by development.
–Make sure you know your plant and can make a positive identification.
–Never harvest the first plant you see, find the healthiest population that does not appear to have been harvested.
–Never take more than ten percent or more than you need
–Always ask the plant if it wants to go with you first. Yes, really.
–Fill holes, spread the seeds of collected plants and return to the area later to monitor the effects of your harvest.
I have built a few ocotillo fences and I don’t want to do it anymore because of the sacrifice required of such a unique plant. If you set out to build a fence you will need a butt load of canes which means you need access to an ever bigger butt load of plants. The goal is to not take more than 3 to 5 canes from each plant, you’ll need around 10 canes per foot and not every plant has harvestable canes so you will need to walk a lot to collect enough canes to have a decent amount of fence. Its honestly easy to overharvest and to hurt what you love. Somewhere around fifteen percent of the canes will root to become part of the living fence. I’ve thrown my book of tricks at this and I can’t get enough “living” for my own satisfaction.
The last time I was asked to build an ocotillo fence I was lining up where to harvest the canes and was ready to build the panels. Then I played the tape forward and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it so I wrote a nice email to the potential client respectfully declining. It felt alot like the years I kept saltwater fish tanks. After so many attempts at playing god in miniature all I saw was a big accumulation of death and a product that didn’t satisfy my soul like i thought it would when I started.
I will no longer build ocotillo fences and instead I will just love the plant itself. Pictured below is my nicely photographed reference photo for a service I no longer provide. In the name of sustainability, (and it is in the name after all), we give up! Oh well, I sleep so good at night anyway.
Groovy Desert Plant
Such a magnificent beauty it reminds me of a plant that should be under the sea just like those perfect salt water scenes I was trying to create years ago with my fish tanks. This country is like that– memories of water, now it is all dried up, fossilized shells, limestone, the compacted skeletons of billions of former sea creatures. Crystal Albright does paintings that capture this concept, the sea without water, fish swim the air. She has her paintings, drawings and photographs on display somewhere.
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