Planting Ocotillo in Your Desert Garden

This distinctive desert native thrives in hot, dry conditions

Wildlife, color - ocotillo brings it all to desert landscapes. If you live in a hot, dry climate, consider planting this distinctive, multi-stemmed desert native that will thrive in your area. The beautiful ocotillo, with its long green stems and bright red flowers, provides a great background feature and is also excellent for bringing birds to your garden.

Invite Birds with Ocotillo

Native to the hillsides of southern and central Arizona, ocotillo begins blooming in April and continues through July or August. The red or reddish orange flowers make a brilliant display, growing in tight clusters at the end of the stems. The stems, called canes, emerge from the swollen base and can grow to 12 feet tall or more. They can stand straight up, arch slightly, or bend nearly to the ground. Expect to see birds flocking to your ocotillo, including hummingbirds, orioles, finches and other nectar lovers.

Remarkable Leaves

The ocotillo's small, dark green leaves are arrayed up the cane and attach to the stem with a long leafstalk, also called a petiole. You'll only see leaves on the plant when the soil is very moist; they'll shed quickly when the soil dries out. Drying leaves are deep gold and can be a stunning display unto themselves. You may find that the plant sheds and grows new leaves up to 5 times a season, depending on how much rainfall you get in your area.

Buying Ocotillo

Ocotillos are routinely sold bare-root, often with no root at all. Expect these to take up to 2 years to re-grow their roots system and become established. Seed-grown ocotillo sold in containers with a living root system are widely available. These will grow fast and establish quickly.

Planting Ocotillo

Ocotillo can be planted almost any time, but aim for April and May. Newly planted ocotillos should be watered every 2 weeks through the first summer and every 2-3 weeks during the first fall. For bare-root plants, continue this watering schedule until the plant shows routine growth. Monthly watering in the winter is enough for new plants. For established plants in the hottest deserts, water your established ocotillo about once a month in the summer and only during long dry spells in the winter.

Pruning Ocotillo

When pruning your ocotillo, prune only dead or damaged stems by cutting back to the base when the plant is not in its growing phase. Cutting high on living stems produces irregular, thin branches rather than the sturdy, single canes you're looking for.