the new ocotillo plant
The new ocotillo, ready to transplant

¡Hola! new alive ocotillo

| One of the prized plants in my backyard landscaping was a large ocotillo that stood as tall as me.

The original ocotillo
The original ocotillo

When I first moved to the desert, I was astonished to see ocotillos in so many yards. Why do people have those dead, thorny sticks in their yards? Then I actually saw an ocotillo leafed out and blooming, and I knew. So one corner of the newly-landscaped back yard had the ocotillo as its focal point.

Alas, after three years and exactly zero leaves, I had to conclude that it was dead. Dead as a doornail. At first I wasn't alarmed - it's not uncommon for an ocotillo to remain dormant for several seasons until just the right combination of cosmic and meteorological alignment spurs them to leaf out and bloom. Over time, however, I grew more and more pessimistic about its viability as every test for living tissue in the plant failed. Finally, recent winds began to topple some canes, and there was no longer a doubt. Dead. Dead as a doornail.

Yesterday I removed the corpse, and today I visited the nursery to buy a new one. To my delight I found that the nursery had a wonderful branching ocotillo in full leaf (i.e., alive!). Plus, it was small enough that I could fit it in my car to bring it home.

ocotillo stump
​The "bare root" of the original ocotillo
cutting the pot off the plant
Cut the bottom off, then put the plant (in the pot) in the hole. Finally, slit the pot and lift it off
New ocotillo, in situ
​The new ocotillo in place
Branching ocotillo at Santa Barbara courthouse
A branching ocotillo at the Santa Barbara court house (Photo by Ken)

I had always been a little suspicious about the original ocotillo because when the landscaper brought it, it had what is known commercially as a "bare root" (see photo). That is to say, no root at all, just a stump with the canes on top.

When I dug out the old one this morning, all I found was that original "bare root" and several pieces of broken brick, obviously used to prop the plant up.

The guy at the nursery gave me a great tip for how to transplant the new ocotillo. Start by cutting off the bottom of the pot with a knife, then put the plant and pot into the hole. Finally, slit the pot up the side so it can be lifted out. Following this procedure ensures that the root ball will be intact and the plant will not be traumatized.

My conclusion is that the original ocotillo probably died of over-watering. It was on the same drip line as all the other plants in the lower back yard, so when I watered enough that the grasses and shrubs were happy, the desert plants had soggy feet and were unhappy. Even on the lowest-flow drip, the ocotillo was getting way too much water.

By contrast, the guy in the nursery was watering the ocotillos only once a week in the winter and would increase to three times a week during the hottest part of the summer.

So, as the last bit of planting, I swapped out the drip for an adjustable bubbler that can be turned off and only opened when I specifically want the ocotillo to get water. It will be a hassle, to be sure, but short of digging up the irrigation lines and installing new valves, there's no real choice.

With any luck at all, perhaps one day my ocotillo will be as splendid as the ones by the courthouse in Santa Barbara.

Last updated on Apr 29, 2016

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