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What Is an Ocotillo?

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  • Written By: Dan Harkins
  • Edited By: Kaci Lane Hindman
  • Last Modified Date: 05 September 2016
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Native to the arid and rocky regions of northern Mexico and the southwestern United States, the ocotillo has dozens of thin, spiny branches called canes that are tipped with red blossoms in spring and early summer. Fouquieria splendens is one of nearly a dozen species in the Fouquieria genus of plants found in this desert region, named after the French doctor Pierre Fouquier in the 19th century. Whether used for landscaping, conditioning leather or even as an herbal remedy for digestive disorders or hemorrhoids, ocotillo has an impressive reputation.

F. splendens is native to the dry, rocky Chihuahua and Sonora regions of Mexico as well as some American states like California, Arizona and New Mexico. Many use the plant for landscaping in those areas, planting them in direct sunlight and providing light waterings. Gardeners also find that, side-by-side, the plants form a nearly impenetrable perimeter fence. At nurseries, ocotillo might also be labeled as Jacob's staff, candlewood or vine cactus.

According to New Mexico State University's online Medicinal Plants of the Southwest database, native Apaches once used the ocotillo's flowers raw or in tea to relieve muscle aches and pains. The Cahuilla tribe made a tea of the roots to battle congestion. Herbalists still use the plant as a folk remedy to ease various conditions of the pelvic region, from generalized pain to more specific conditions like hemorrhoids. It is also used to condition leather.

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Most make a tea of ocotillo with its flowers, roots or when its small leaves are showing. This involves placing the plant material into a tea sieve and steeping them in boiled water for as long as 10 minutes or more. Since the plant only flowers from March to June, other herbalists make a tincture of the flowers that can last a few years or longer. This is done by wrapping several dozen ocotillo blossoms in cheesecloth, sealing the bundle and submerging it in a lidded jar of vodka or rum of a high proof — 80 proof or higher. Kept in a dark place, the tincture should be shaken every day for about two weeks.

The nearby Baja Peninsula in Mexico is the principle home to a close relative of the ocotillo, the boojum tree, with some also growing in the Western Sonoran region. Scientifically named F. columnaris, this tree looks like a giant inverted taproot. With just small splays of foliage near the tips of each major branch, this pale-colored tree often shows in bright white, from soft bark to tiny leaves.

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