Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the February 23, 2007 Newsletter issued from Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve, QUERÉTARO, MÉXICO

"Ocotillo" is another word we've taken from Spanish into English, this time as the name of a plant. In this case it's such an unusual plant that it has its own family, the Ocotillo Family, the Fouquieriaceae, which contains only the genus Fouquieria. I'm not sure which Fouquieria we have, maybe FOUQUIERIA LEONILAE. The one in the US Southwest is F. splendens, the name hinting at why ocotillo is such a popular plant among nature folks. You can see the ocotillos beside my second night's camp below:


That picture suggests Ocotillo's strangeness -- its long, slender, spiny, arching stems -- but there's little splendiferousness to see. Ocotillos are splendid mainly after heavy rains. Most of the year they consist of the leafless, spiny branches shown in the picture, but about three days after a soaking rain they adorn themselves with small, emerald-green leaves. When the arching, green stems are tipped with inflorescences of bright red flowers the plants are indeed splendid. Right now our plants are just beginning to flower. You can see a spike with one blossom open at the inflorescence's base below:


An Ocotillo's first leaves possess pronounced petioles, or stems, and midribs. When these leaves die, their petioles and part of their midribs remain on the stem and harden into the slender, curved spines you see in the above image. At spine bases arise tiny, hardly visible "short-shoots" (as opposed to the spiny "long-shoots" in the picture), from which new leaves arise each time there's a good rain. In the picture, at the base of each spine you can barely make out some low, splintery stuff. One of those "short-shoot" splinters at each petiole will produce a short-lived leaf the next time a big rain comes. This short-shoot/long-shoot business is unusual in the plant world and supports the conclusions of recent gene analysis that Ocotillos aren't closely related to any other kind of plant.

You can guess from the flowers' shape and red color that they're very attractive to hummingbirds. Ants and ground squirrels eat the flowers.