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Fouquieria shrevei
Fouquieria splendens
  Owner:   C. Michael Hogan    

F. splendens splendens on the broad desert valley floor, Anza-Borrego

Fouquieria splendens

C. Michael Hogan PhD
October 12, 2009

Fouquieria splendens is a widespread dominant plant of the southwest North American deserts. This lithe woody multifurcate shrub forms an iconic element of these deserts with its slightly arched growth habit. Remarkably, leaves can appear rapidly after only several days of rain. F splendens has been exploited for millennia by early peoples of southwest North America for medicinal, food and structural uses. While F. splendens itself has a relatively broad distribution in the southwest deserts, many of these desert habitats are threatened by an expanding human population, off road vehicle usage and proposals for substantial solar arrays.


The distribution of F. splendens includes occurrence in the Chihuahuan, Sonoran and Mojave Desert. In Mexico F.splendens extends from Coahuila and Zacatecas in the south to Baja California at the north of its Mexican range. In the USA the species occurs from California to Texas. Three subspecies are recognized:

* F. splendens breviflora
* F. splendens splendens
* F. splendens campanulata

The nominate subspecies is generally restricted to an elevation of less than 700 meters, and occurs most frequently on arid rocky soil types. F. splendens brevifolia occurs in certain arid zones of northwest Mexico at elevations between 700 and 2100 meters. F. splendens campanulata is associated with the Mexican state of Durango, (Eggli) notably ranging from the Sierra Madre Occidental to the Rio Nazas basin.
Close-up of Ocotillo leafing out, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park


The substantial stems of F. splendens are branched near the ground and exhibit an erect to outwardly arching habit attaining height of two to ten meters. (Jepson) The cane-like stems may number from six to 100 in number and achieve a diameter of six centimeters. These stems are supple but sturdy and are without leaves for the majority of the year; bark is gray with dark furrows, and bear numerous spines one to four centimeters in diameter. The root structure is relatively coarse and brittle with only minor branching habit. (Cannon)

The primary leaves extend one to five centimeters on petioles of one to 2.5 centimeters, while secondary leaves occur in a cluster of two to six and attain a length of one to two centimeters. These secondary leaves are four to nine millimeters wide and are mounted on petioles of two to eight millimeters. Secondary leaves are blade spoon-shaped to obovate, with rounded or notched. The leaf cuticle is similar in thickness to typical mesophytes, but the stomatal aperture geometry reveals the desert adaptation of this species through the pronounced outer ridge structure of the stomatal guard cells. (Lloyd) This species can be regarded as a poikilohydric plant, basied upon F. s. breviflora studies, (Dorantes) since its metabolism is regulated during bud development when flooding events occur on its habitat after a prolonged drought. The somewhat conic flowers manifest as panicles from March to July, spanning approximately ten to 20 centimeters. The vivid red corolla is 1.8 to 2.5 centimeters in size; fruits are about two centimeters across.


In the Lower Colorado River Valley, F. splendens is a dominant species with abundant associates on recent volcanic soils being Larrea tridentata, Olneya tesota, Cercidium microphyllum, Encilia farinosa, Hyptis Emoryi, Opuntia acanthocarpa, Bebbia juncea, Celtis pallida, Acacia constricta and Trixis californicaThis association thrives on marginal precipitation in a regime of rocky poorly developed soils. (Shreve) In the Sabino Canyon of the Santa Catalina Mountains of Arizona, particularly on slopes above the upper bajada, F. splendens is common along with Crysoma larcifolia and Opuntia bigelovii. Typical California Sonoran habitat is in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park where it occurs with Cylindopuntia wolfii, C. ramosissima and other desert succulents and scrub.

An example flora community in the Cerro Colorado of Baja Mexico includes such associates as: Justicia californica, Yucca valida, Cryptantha angelica, Cylindropuntia cholla, Ferrocactus peninsulae, Atriplex elegans, Cucurbita cordata, Ephedra aspera, Acacia greggii, Dalea mollis, Olneya tesota, Aristida californica and Datura discolor. A number of wildlife species use the Ocotillo as a food source; for example, a variety of hummingbird species feed upon the Ocotillo. (Mielke)


Prehistorically many early peoples used the Ocotillo as a building material. (Moerman) The Hualapai tribe in present day Arizona used the branches of the Ocotillo for building huts. The Cahuilla tribe used the branches not only for huts, but for fences to protect crops from rodents and burrowing animals The Papago people used fibers from the Ocotillo as the warp for building hut structures and as ribs in dome-shaped homes. An early use of North American furniture manufacture, the Pima dethorned branches and made shelves by binding the branches with rawhide. In one of the first documented uses of native plants for landscaping the Pima people explicitly were known to use the Ocotillo decoratively in their adornment of their gardens.

There were a number of medicinal uses prehistorically for the Ocotillo. The Hualapai utilized the roots orthopedically as a soothing bath for swollen feet. The Mahuna people used extracts from the Ocotillo as a tonic, which was believed to purify the blood. Several tribes recount how their ancestors applied Ocotillo extracts to wounds for abating bleeding. (Wisniewska-Jones)

Numerous food uses have been made of F. splendens. The Cahuilla made a porridge by mashing the seeds. The Tolowa and Yurok tribes have used the fruit of the Ocotillo as food since antiquity. The Papago tribe long used the nectar to harden into a rock candy and eat as a delicacy, while the Yavapai children sucked the nectar, described by Moerman as an early snack food.


A number of locations in northwest Mexico have been identified with a high density of succulent biodiversity. One such location is the Cerro Colorado near San Ignacio; another site in Sonora is the Sierra del Viejo southwest of Cahorca. While these succulent densities do not rival the Cape of South Africa, they are impressive for North America. (Cartron) Cerro Caguama and Tres Virgenes are two other locales of high biodiversity for succulents. In central Baja California is the expansive El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve, which has numerous locations of highly diverse succulent populations. In the USA, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and Joshua Tree National Park represent important assemblages of native succulents that include the Ocotillo as a dominant. While the management of Joshua Tree National Park affords considerable protection of delicate desert plants, the other areas listed above all face threats from intensive human use, including off road vehicle use and urbanization. Even the main valley floor of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park bears scars from uncontrolled off road vehicle use and disturbance of Ocotillo habitat. Outside the protected areas of California and Arizona, these sensitive desert habitats face ongoing treats from the expanding human population, usurpation of land for solar arrays and by refuse dumping and surface disturbance along the border, where extensive illegal immigration is occurring. The Mexican sites above face continuing threats of an expanding human population. For example, within the El Vizcaino Biosphere Preserve most human uses are allowed, and extensive open dumping of refuse and livestock grazing pose ongoing threats to the ecosystem.


* C. Michael Hogan. 2009. Washington Fan Palm: Washingtonia filifera, GlobalTwitcher, ed. N. Stromberg
* Urs Eggli. 2002. Illustrated handbook of succulent plants, 545 pages
* Willis Linn Jepson. 1993. Jepson Manual: Bursera microphylla. On-line republication
* William Austin Cannon. 1911. The root habits of desert plants, 96 pages
* Francis Ernest Lloyd. 1908. The physiology of stomata, 142 pages
Raymond M. Turner, J.E. Bowers and T.L. Burgess. 1995. Sonoran desert plants: an ecological atlas, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, Arizona
* Angélica Rodríguez Dorantes and José Luis Muñoz Sánchez. 2006. Biochemical changes and development of leaf tracheary elements of a desert plant Fouquieria splendens ssp. breviflora exposed to water stress, Physiologia Plantarum, Volume 127 Issue 4, Pages 650 - 657, Wiley Interscience
* Judy Mielke. 1993. Native plants for Southwestern landscapes, University of Texas Press, 310 pages
* Daniel E. Moerman. 1998. Native American ethnobotany, 927 pages
Thomas Henry Kearney and Robert Hibbs Peebles. 1960. Arizona flora, 1085 pages
* Forrest Shreve and Ira L. Wiggins. 1964. Vegetation and Flora of the Sonoran Desert, 1752 pages
* Deborah Wisniewska-Jones. 1999. Ethnobotany: Succulents, Toronto Cactus & Succulent Club newsletter, Cactus Factus
* Jean-Luc E. Cartron, Gerardo Ceballos, Richard Stephen Felger, 2005. Biodiversity, ecosystems, and conservation in northern Mexico, Oxford University Press, 496 pages

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