Friday, March 18, 2011

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) in Joshua Tree National Park

Flowering Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)
Flowering Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)

Near the closing of February I spent a weekend in Joshua Tree National Park. It was my third visit to the park and this time I targeted in on teddy-bear cholla (and of course cacti in general), Yucca brevifolia (one could argue they are hard to miss in the park;-), and another of my favorites that is covered in this post: the ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) with its sprawling canes soaring for the sky.

Ocotillo flower, close-up
Ocotillo flower, close-up

Fortunately my visit followed a period of heavy rains so the ocotillos were both draped in leaves and flowering. On the downside a strong gale was blowing making it extremely difficult to get a clear shot of the flowers (but as the pictures show I finally managed to snap a few;-)

Ocotillo in the Colorado Desert
Ocotillo in the Colorado Desert

The ocotillo, characteristic of the Colorado Desert, prefers to root in gravelly slopes of alluvial fans. Flash floods flush sand, gravel, and rock out of the canyons and onto the valley floor creating these fans.

Ocotillo displaying new growth
Ocotillo displaying new growth

Fouquieria splendens is sometimes confused for a cacti, but is not. The thorny multi-stem shrub is in fact a woody deciduous plant. Unlike other deciduous shrubs, which normally grow leaves in the spring and drop them in the fall, the ocotillo may grow and drop leaves as often as five times during the year. Its leaves aren’t season dependent but rain dependent.

Fouquieria splendens leaves
Fouquieria splendens leaves

Following a sufficient rain, the ocotillo puts forth a cluster of leaves above each torn, adorning the otherwise dead-looking canes with a flourish of green. At the same time red blossoms may appear at the tip of the canes. The leaves go about the business of photosynthesis until the next drought; then they turn red or brown and drop.

Sprawling ocotillo canes reaching for the sky
Sprawling ocotillo canes reaching for the sky

The above picture was taken standing on the ground looking up into the sprawling canes of an ocotillo. It gives an impression of the height of the plant as I stand 190 cm (6 feet 3 inches) tall and these plants tower above me.

You can find more information on Fouquieria splendens in the book Sonoran Desert Wildflowers: A Field Guide to the Common Wildflowers of the Sonoran Desert.

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