Unveiling the Ocotillo: Exploring a Desert Icon

Sept. 19, 2023

The Sonoran Desert’s landscape is constantly changing with the seasons. One plant that goes through a major transformation every year is the Ocotillo. With its distinctive appearance and vital role in the desert ecosystem, the Ocotillo captures the essence of adaptation, resilience and beauty. 

There are many Ocotillos at the Cooper Center, and we like to study them with students regularly. We often look at how they change based on the weather, as well as dive into the various elements that set them apart from other flora in the Sonoran desert. Here is what we have found through learning about these amazing plants over the years: 


  • The Ocotillo is a tall and spindly shrub that can grow up to 20 feet in height. Its most distinguishing feature is its long, slender, spiny stems, which are covered in thorns. These stems are usually green but do turn grayish-brown as they age. 
  • Ocotillos have small, oval-shaped leaves that appear at the end of their stems, but they are not present on the plant year-round. Instead, these leaves emerge during periods of sufficient rainfall and may fall off during dry spells to conserve water. 
  • Ocotillos bloom striking red-orange flowers at the tips of its stems. These flowers bloom during the spring and early summer - they are also great at attracting pollinators such as hummingbirds and bees.



  • Ocotillos are well-adapted to arid desert environments. Its stems are covered with a waxy layer, which helps reduce water loss through evaporation. Additionally, the plant can quickly produce leaves and flowers in response to rainfall, making it appear to “come to life” after a monsoon. 
  • The Ocotillo has the metabolic qualities of a succulent, meaning it can grow with little precipitation. 
  • Did you know that hummingbirds and Octollios co-evolved together? While pollinating, the Ocotillo blooms provide nectar to the hummingbirds and the hummingbird bills fit perfectly in the flower! 
  • Ocotillos are considered fire-adapted plants. After a fire sweeps through the desert, it can quickly regenerate from the base, producing new shoots and leaves.


Cultural & Environmental Significance: 

  • For indigenous communities, the Ocotillo holds much cultural significance. The flexible stems have been used in traditional construction and the flowers are believed to have medicinal properties. 
  • The Ocotillo roots and stems have been traditionally used to make teas or infusions believed to treat various ailments, including sore throats, gastrointestinal issues and arthritis. Additionally, the plant's adaptability inspires stories of endurance and resilience, serving as a cultural touchstone for lessons in facing life’s challenges. 
  • Native American tribes such as the O’odham and Seri have historically used the Ocotillo for various purposes, including making tools and constructing fences. 
  • Ocotillos provide habitat and food for various desert wildlife species. The flowers attract pollinators, and the plant's dense stems offer shelter for various birds and small animals. 

The Sonoran Desert’s Ocotillo is more than just a plant - it is a living symbol of nature's tenacity and ingenuity. From its breathtaking transformation to its role in supporting a fragile ecosystem, the Ocotillo invites us to think about the beauty and complexity of the desert around us. Remember, the Ocotillo is a unique desert plant that plays an important role in its ecosystem and has cultural significance in some indigenous communities. It is important to appreciate and protect these plants when encountering them in their natural habitat, which is exactly what we teach students when running into these beautiful plants at Camp Cooper. 

Want to learn more about various plants in the Sonoran Desert?