Borrego Sun - Since 1949

Nature Watch: "Ocotillo"


Last updated 11/9/2023 at 1:53pm

Those iconic desert plants known as ocotillo are usually something written about in the spring when their spindly coachwhips are tipped with fiery red wildflowers.

But if you have been out and about, you may have noticed the ocotillo forests around Borrego Springs are glowing with bright green leaves, thanks to summer monsoon rainstorms and the recent wet visit by hurricane Hillary.

Also known as candlewood, flaming sword, buggy whips or slimwood, the ocotillo is a common desert shrub, often blanketing open, rocky, well-drained bajadas in the Colorado, Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts from Southern California to Texas and south into Mexico. These hardy plants live from 60 to well over 100 years, growing to a height of 20 feet.

For much of the year, they almost appear dead, with bare stalks covered with stout spines. Often, they are used to create a fence because the spines are a good barrier to people or animals trying to pass through.

They are unusual looking plants, but somewhat unremarkable until rains stimulate leaf growth.

They will seemingly spring to life, with leaves that will quickly emerge after a rainstorm.

Prime time for the ocotillo is spring when glorious, waxy red flowers will appear at the tips of the long, slender branches, generally between March into June.

The deep red flowers are ½ to an inch in length with bright yellow stamen that attract bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, verdin and various insects.

Recent monsoon rains may have come at the right time and the right amount to create a second year of "false spring," when water, temperatures and sunlight are ideal to create a wildflower bloom.

It's not a blanket of wildflowers, but a treasure hunt to find the little nuggets tucked into wet spots or areas where a squall dumped large amounts of rain.

Enjoy the show.

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