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How Do I Care for an Ocotillo Cactus?

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  • Written By: Christian Petersen
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 20 August 2016
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An ocotillo cactus is a woody plant, native to the Southwestern United States and Mexico. Not actually a true cactus, it has the scientific name of Fouquieria splendens and is known by several names, including coachwhip cactus, Jacob's staff, desert coral, and vine cactus, among others. It is a popular landscape plant in the warmer areas of the United States and is not cold hardy. Ocotillo cactus is easy to care for once established, although certain things must be considered when transplanting them.

These plants are often available from nurseries and may also be collected from the wild for transplanting. The first thing to consider is soil. In their natural environment, octillo cacti flourish in poor soils in desert areas and do best if planted in coarse, very well-drained soil with a fair amount of sand or small gravel and not too much organic material. They are suited to soils that range in pH from slightly acidic to slightly alkaline and require a location that provides maximum sunlight.

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Planting an ocotillo cactus may be done year round in most areas, but in very hot areas, it is best to avoid planting during the hottest months of summer. The plant must be oriented in its new location so that the side of the plant that faced south in the original location again faces the same direction. This is because the south side of the plant will have a higher tolerance to sun and wind, and planting the ocotillo cactus with the same orientation improves its chances for survival. The ocotillo should also be planted at a depth that duplicates its original planting depth. The plant will require some form of stabilization, usually provided by large rocks placed around the base, as staking can scar the stems.

After transplanting, water the ocotillo cactus once per week during hot, dry periods and every three to four weeks during cooler periods for the first year or so. The soil should not remain damp or soggy. For several months, the canes should be misted daily with a spray hose, which helps the plant survive until it establishes itself in the new location. Very large plants may require as long as two years to become fully established. Once the plant is established, it can be fertilized with a weak fertilizer once per year and should be watered infrequently, as it actually prefers rather dry conditions.

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