One of the most striking plants of the desert actually appears dead most of the time. But in the spring the stick-like ocotillo takes center stage, boosting large populations of migratory hummingbirds north with shots of sweet nectar from showy red flowers. The landscape looks parched in March and already the perennial brittle bushes are folding away their yellow flowers. Yet despite drought conditions, that bare-boned woody shrub the ocotillo blooms splendidly with crimson tassels dangling from every cane.
Hummingbirds depend on ocotillos for nectar and resting sites and verdins and carpenter bees also appreciate this reliable food source. Tiny verdins pull a fast one on the ocotillo, slitting the tubular blooms at the base to sip and steal the nectar. The verdin neglects its pollination duties and still manages to be charming and successful even without the long beak of the hummer. Carpenter bees also come in the flower’s back door but they do crawl around inside, picking up and distributing pollen along their rounds. Another critter that depends on ocotillo flowers and seeds is the antelope ground squirrel that scampers up the whip-like canes to feast.
Ocotillos frequently appear dead because they only leaf out after a rain. Within three days of rainfall the stark canes are softened by a flurry of bright green leaves. Each is attached to the cane, technically the stem of this shrub, with a tough leaf stalk that will harden into a spine when the leaf falls off, usually within a few weeks. This process may repeat up to six times a year depending on rainfall. In dry years the plant remains a collection of sticks until bloom time. The colorful blossoms stay on the shrub for a full month. Herbalists advise drinking a tea of the fresh blossoms to prepare your system for the shock of the summer heat.
The shallow rooting ocotillo requires well drained soil. In the desert it is often found in rocky soils, particularly limestone and granite. In cooler elevations ocotillos grow in limestone as the rocks hold heat. The sun warmed soil helps prevent frost damage. In the driest areas of the desert, ocotillos will be found in granite soils where the gravel acts as mulch, holding any available moisture near the plant’s root system.
I watched a hummingbird mount an air attack on a marauding verdin. The verdin hid in the thicket of canes at the base of a sprawling ocotillo, but eventually flew away while the victorious hummer preened on a high cane tip.