A survivalist that weathers the desert’s extreme heat and long dry spells, the ocotillo flashes its true colors each spring in the form of torch-like blooms.

About the Ocotillo Plant, Native to the Coachella Valley

Fiery blooms dress the thin gray ocotillo in surprising color during the desert spring. Here's where to find it in the wild.

Steven Biller Attractions, Hiking

A survivalist that weathers the desert’s extreme heat and long dry spells, the ocotillo flashes its true colors each spring in the form of torch-like blooms.

A survivalist that weathers the desert’s extreme heat and long dry spells, the ocotillo flashes its true colors each spring in the form of torch-like blooms.

The winter rains have come and gone, leaving in their wake a brilliant show of color across the wild desert and stirring a rush of wide-eyed Instagrammers into the spectacle. Even the driest, sandiest, and least inhabitable stretches burst to life — places like the Pinto Basin on the lesser-trafficked south side of Joshua Tree National Park, where this time of year, it’s almost impossible to find a parking space at the Ocotillo Patch.

Following the rains of January and February, the large, thorny, multistem ocotillos populating this nook of the park turn from gray to green and bloom with orangey-red bouquets that hang like bells. Here, they sprawl across an alluvial fan flanked by a pair of mountain ranges that sustain them with a double dose of moisture runoff.

“For nine or 10 months of the year, [the ocotillo] stands gaunt, leafless, seemingly lifeless,” author J. Smeaton Chase described in his 1919 travelogue, California Desert Trails. “And one strange feature is the suddenness with which, on the coming of the rains, it changes from dead, dry gray to living green. Small leaves appear as if by magic and feather the canes with vivid green. ... Then a flower-spike starts from the tip of each cane and bursts into a flame-like tongue a foot or so long made up of scores of tubular scarlet and yellow blossoms.”

Armando’s Bar

After the winter rains, small green leaves cover the spindly stems of the ocotillo plant, a precursor to its fiery blooms.

The tallest plants (they grow up to 20 feet) and those with the most stems (up to 40) present the grandest displays — not only at the Ocotillo Patch but in open, rocky habitats, especially the mesas and washes of the high and low deserts, including the Ocotillo Flat near Borrego Springs.

It’s best to arrive in the park early enough to see the fiery blooms under the bright sun and late enough to linger for magic hour, the optimal time to appreciate the ocotillos’ graceful branches in silhouette against pink skies.

I wasn’t always this reverent of the ocotillo. Quite the opposite.

When I moved to Palm Springs 22 years ago, I bought a modern villa in Canyon View Estates on the south end of town. The units shared the same floor plans, but architect William Krisel distinguished each residence by varying its elevation and roofline and punctuating its all-white façade with desert plants. A mature ocotillo designated my spot in the neighborhood.

I wanted to love the haggard 12-foot-tall plant, but it was armed with curving thorns that made for a prickly relationship. I was hardly surprised to learn that the Native Cahuilla people used ocotillo stems to build fences to protect their gardens from rodents.

One night when I came home from work, my hands full as I began walking the few steps from the carport to the front door and the outside light not yet on, an errant tentacle scratched my hand and tore my shirtsleeve. I was unable  to tame The Beast, as I’d nicknamed it. It terrorized me and my guests for another year — until it yanked the life out of a brand-new sweater that my mother bought for me. Then the nuisance  had to go.

After years of encountering ocotillos on hikes and seeing them deified in photographs and paintings, I grew to love the plants and regret my decision.


A field of ocotillo beginning to bloom. 

The ocotillo (“little torch” in Spanish) is exactly the kind of plant you want in your arid yard. It’s drought-tolerant, able to survive on only 8 inches of rain per year. When it blooms between February and April, it provides a food source for native carpenter bees and hummingbirds, which in turn pollinate the plant’s flowers.

Historically, the Cahuilla people ate the ocotillo’s fresh flowers and soaked them in water to make a “summer drink,” according to Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants by anthropologist Lowell Bean and Katherine Siva Saubel. “The drink was slightly bitter, yet pungently pleasant.” After blossoming, the flowers’ high-protein seeds “were parched and ground into a flour from which mush or cakes were made.”

Today, a dietary supplement made from the bark of the plant is available to support healthy digestion, reduce inflammation, and promote overall health with its antioxidant properties.

A hardy survivalist, the ocotillo — which (surprise!) belongs to the candlewood, not cactus family — can live up to 100 years, unfazed by extreme heat and long stretches without rain. In drought conditions, when the stems harbor less water content, their semisucculent oval leaves turn yellow and fall, leaving “a bundle of bare sticks soaked with resin that will burn with fire but will not evaporate with heat,” John Van Dyke described in his 1901 tome, The Desert. The shellac-like sap varnish on its leaves defies evaporation.

It is illegal to harvest ocotillo in the wild, where the growing number of dead branches on the ground hints that climate change might be endangering the plants.

The ocotillo I had removed a generation ago still thrives in an open space in our community, and the spot where it once identified my piece of paradise remains empty, ready for a new, responsibly sourced plant — my primary goal for spring.