Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens): Ecstatically Grounded and Passionately Responsive- A Desert Ally for Stagnancy, Flow and Connection with Life Force
As I stand on a windy ridge of the foothills of the desert mountains, I look out across the expanse- clear, blue open sky, pink earthen granite boulders, and the green snake like arms of Ocotillo- covered in multitudes of green leaves, which only serve to highlight the fierce, thick thorns that run the length of its arms, open like a vase to the desert sun and sky, and rooted firmly in the dry desert soil. It has been just about two years since I have lived in the dry Sonoran desert landscape, and sat with the Ocotillo. Once this plant was among the many unique plants in my apothecary that grow only here in my beloved desert, but now, as I have returned to this desert home, the Ocotillo has become something more, so much more; a herald and an ally, as I reclaim parts of myself, my life, my community that I left behind. Those fierce arms waving gently in the breeze beckon me closer, to sit, and feel myself rooted in earth, and ever open to the wisdom and magic of the world around me; to protect my core with fierceness, yet dance freely and visibly with the burning passions within my most authentic self.
To non desert dwellers Ocotillo may look a bit like an alien with a vicious streak. It grows throughout the southwest in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts on rocky slopes and foothills to about 5000 ft. It grows from a single base trunk close to the ground, which branches out into many arms opening upward and outward toward the sky. A single mature ocotillo may have over a hundred individual arms and grow to 15- 20 ft high. Each arm is studded with rigid, sharp thorns which are modified leaf stems. These thorns can be quite vicious and puncture the skin.
For much of the year in the desert, Ocotillo may look like it is not living, because it lacks leaves. But as soon as any moisture falls on the desert, the ocotillo responds instantaneously to produce hundreds of small oval shaped leaves that cover the arms, within a matter of days. It can seem like almost overnight that the ocotillo stands bare and thorny and then flush with green shining leaves which capture the scant rainfall in their gently cupped embrace. Ocotillo responds so quickly to moisture in part because of its root system, which is close to the surface of the desert floor and spreads out in a diameter at least as large as the plant is tall. In this way it can take advantage of any small amount of water that falls on the surface of the earth, but which may not penetrate very deeply. Shortly after leafing out in response to rainfall, the Ocotillo will begin to produce a raceme of vivid, red tubular flowers, with dramatic stamens and sweet nectar beloved by hummingbirds and bees. They flower between Feb and June, and sometimes into the summer rainy months. Ocotillo is one of those remarkable plants that can root readily from a cutting of the branch, when planted in moist ground. People often build “living fences” made from ocotillo cuttings which leaf and flower and grow with the rain cycles of the desert.
Ocotillo is a special plant, unique to this dry little corner on the planet, with few relatives in the Fouquieria genus, one notably, called the boojum tree (Fouquieria columnaris), and grows in Baja California exclusively. Though Ocotillo is widespread through out this region, it is always at risk due to desert development and sprawl as urban areas spread into the foothills and slopes. It is an endemic- limited in region and by climate, and so as with any endemic plant anywhere on the planet, one has to consider very carefully the protection and longevity of the plant itself, and its habit, and its place in the ecosystem where it grows before considering other uses. This is not the plant for mass market commercial herb production or to be widely popularized across the world as the “next best herb cure for this or that.” I firmly believe in the importance of working closely with the plants that grow around you, in your backyard, and in your bioregion, as primary medicine. This isn’t to say you can’t use herbs from other places sometimes, but it is the plants that grow in the same environment in which we ourselves live, have a deeper, more appropriate medicine for that place and those people. Exposed to the same climate extremes, rainfall patterns, temperatures, droughts, floods- plants and humans in the same bioregion are like two organs of a body system- they are adapted to each other, and respond to each others responses and feedback in turn. Often times humans like to think we are immune to those sorts of energies, because we live in houses with artificial heat or cooling and our lifestyles do cut us off dramatically from the land in ways that eat at our most primal soul, but we are deeply connected to the land we live on – and its experiences, its plants. Ask anyone who has moved from their home landscape, they often feel displaced, uncomfortable with the type of surroundings, or feel an uneasy sense of longing in their new landscape.
And so, I write of ocotillo, an endemic medicine of the southwest, a medicine local to me to inspire respect for and value of a medicine plant that is so precious and unique, not to encourage each and every one to use this medicine. I love this plant dearly, and have found its medicine for me is even more potent now, spiritually, and physically, after having left and returned, and journeyed far from my Home land. I want to honor this friend and introduce it to plant lovers and plant honoring herbalists so you can love and appreciate her, and those who feel called to the healing of Ocotillo, can do so wisely.
Harvest & Preparation
Harvesting from a mature Ocotillo one branch, is much like pruning a tree, and causes no long term harm to the plant, and you can always replant a piece of the branch nearby to propagate the plant naturally. It is considered a protected plant in many places in the Southwest, so it is prudent to harvest from private land when possible, or when large tracts of desert are bulldozed leaving many uprooted plants. I find it best harvested after a rain, and the leaves are on the branches, though any live branch will do. Live branches without leaves have a waving pattern of green underneath the grey bark and thorns. Sharp pruners, some leather gloves and a big rock are your tools, as you stand in the meager shade of your wide brimmed hat, watching the thorny arms dance in the hot desert wind. Clip a single branch at the base, making a clean cut, with no dangling bark or ripped pith, and gently pull the branch toward the ground with your gloved hand. When you’ve removed the branch, lay it out on a flat hard surface, and I like to cut it into 4 or 5 smaller more manageable pieces. Then take your big rock that fits into your gloved hand and pound the ocotillo branch on a second flat hard surface to split the fresh bark from the pith. I’ve seen people use and recommend peeling with a knife, but it has always seemed to me, more dangerous and difficult to deal with the thorns, than just a nice heavy rock. The bark peels off readily from a fresh branch after a rain. This bark should be chopped (with good clippers) into smaller pieces to fit into your jar. You can keep your pith for a walking stick or fire boards or drills; it is rather pretty and creamy white with small depressions where thorns attached. I tincture the bark fresh in 95% alcohol, 1 pt Ocotillo bark and leaf: 2 parts alcohol for 4 weeks. My experience has been with the fresh plant tincture, and this is the form I use exclusively. I was taught that dried plant preparations of ocotillo bark are less useful, but I haven’t put that to the test. I’ve often found that the dogma of only fresh plant being active to be false on more than one occasion, so suppose it is entirely possible that dried ocotillo is useful as well.
The stunning red flowers can also be harvested, if you can reach them atop a 20 ft tall arm waving in the wind, and dried for a mild and delicious beverage tea.
Energetics & Actions
Ocotillo is a warming and mildly drying lymphatic and blood/fluid mover. It has an affinity for the tissues and region of the pelvis and liver/portal vein system, and the respiratory system. It is a stimulant, decongestant, chologouge, expectorant, and mild emmengouge. It is a warming bitter, with a sweet, oily or soapy taste.
It improves digestion of and assimilation of dietary fats, improving the uptake of lipids from the liver/portal vein blood and intestines into the mesentery (digestive lymphatic tissue) and pelvic lymphatic tissue. It stimulates bile production and secretions by the liver and gall bladder. It moves stagnant qi, energy, blood, mucous, and intracellular fluid in the pelvic region or lungs outward, upward and downward. It decongests respiratory tissue and excess mucous by increasing secretions to move stagnant fluids out through productive coughing.
I use ocotillo most frequently in people with gall bladder and liver deficiency, poor bile production, and poor digestion and assimilation of dietary fats. These people tend be on the cold side, and often have dry, itchy, or scaly skin, and cracked lips. Sometimes they eat adequate dietary fats, but do not absorb and assimilate them, which can show up as steatorrhea (fat in the stools), or they cannot tolerate eating much fat at all, and the diet lacks sources of healthy fats necessary for skin health, mental health, hormone production, and healthy inflammation levels. Ocotillo increases the uptake of dietary fats from the portal vein into the lymphatic tissue of the pelvis, improving digestion, assimilation, and utilization of fats, and relieving stagnancy of blood in the area.
I often see ocotillo indicated as well in people who have alternating diarrhea/steatorrhea and constipation from hormone imbalances, liver/gall bladder deficiency, weak/cold digestive function, and stagnancy in the pelvic area. This stagnation in the pelvis is a key indicator for ocotillo- stagnant portal vein and lymphatic drainage and often stagnant liver qi. This shows up in numerous disorders indicating stagnation, along with constipation, there are often hemorrhoids, varicose veins in the upper thighs/buttocks, acne or boils in the pelvic area/thighs, buttocks,
In men it can be useful in cases of benign prostatitis, often from too much sitting, (of course ruling out other more serious causes of prostate inflammation/swelling), frequent urination/polyuria, as well as sexual debility and difficulty maintaining erections. In this case I find ocotillo is helpful if the primary cause is stagnancy in the pelvic region. This situation often has other accompanying causes which must be addressed concurrently (malnutrition especially protein and B vitamins, lack of sleep, excessive stress, food allergy, and emotional or psychological reasons.) A male client of mine who used Ocotillo for stagnancy in the pelvic region that included constipation, liver stagnantion and difficulty with maintaining erection says, “When I took ocotillo, I noticed my stamina and libido working in a more harmonious way. I do believe my lower back was a little wrenched at the time I received ocotillo and could feel a shift occurring.”
In women this stagnancy shows up in sluggish menstruation, and uterine stagnancy, with cramps and old, brown spotting at the beginning of the cycle followed by clotted blood and cramping. Ocotillo can be helpful in cases of endometriosis in addressing the pooling, stagnant blood along with other therapies and herbs. It is also helpful for women experiencing loss of libido, again, working with all the aspects and root causes.
I’ve shared ocotillo with many clients and students, and everyone consistently remarks on the warming and relaxing sensation that they experience in the pelvic region and I have found ocotillo over and over again to help address the symptomatic pattern associated with stuck/stagnant liver qi. This is a symptom pattern from TCM that is somewhat parallel to the symptoms of pelvic blood/lymph stagnation. It includes a hot core and cold extremities, dryness of skin on the extremities, while the core can be oily. There may be redness in the face or eyes, allergies, eruptive explosive emotional outbursts, constipation or diarrhea, stagnant menstruation. Ocotillo, along with other relaxing, diffusive, and draining herbs can help to move the stagnant qi from the core and restore even qi flow throughout the body. I combine ocotillo with verbena, stachys, mahonia, zingiber, curcuma, rosa, citrus peel, and/or taraxacum. As with any therapy, the root cause of qi stagnation must be addressed as well- including removing food allergens, excessive alcohol, pharmaceuticals/nicotine, sleep debt, repressed emotions, excessive consumption of cold foods, and general cold/deficiency in the system.
Ocotillo has an affinity for moving physical stagnation from the pelvis and liver, it also helps to unlock blocked/stagnant energy of the pelvic and sexual regions. In particular the kundalini stuck/blocked in the first three chakras – root, sacral and solar plexus. It is these chakras associated with our core self, our security and sense of safety, our roots in the earth, our sexuality, our passions and pleasure, and our ability to manifest and create. I have seen, in myself, and in others, that when this flow gets blocked at any of these three chakras, the result is a lack of sexual energy and vitality, overwhelming fear, difficulty providing for ones physical needs, inability to connect with core self and purpose, denial or inability to deal with emotions and frustrating or unhealthy situations, a feeling of being cut off from purpose, passion, and creativity. This can cause depression, a sense of overwhelm, over emotionality and explosive reactions, or on the flip side a complete disassociation from ones feelings and a sense of apathy and a complete lack of interest in sexuality and intimate emotional connection with others, or with ones purpose and creative work in the world.
I have used both the flower essence of the bright red ocotillo blossoms, and the tincture of the bark and leaf to address varying degrees of this manifestation of blocked energy in the physical/emotional/energetic body. For my part, I found myself as a perfect example of this picture for almost a year- depressed, unable to function or connect with others; unable to do work I loved, completely cut off from my roots. I felt adrift, lost, and empty. Ocotillo was the medicine I needed, along with support and counsel of someone I trusted, community and re-rooting in the landscape I belong to. I have worked with ocotillo essence and tincture personally, in addition to hours spent sitting with the plants as they leaf out, and bloom this spring; and as I landed back in my homeland this spring- I found myself at the feet of the Ocotillo, filled with awe and gratitude to this ally for sharing so clearly with me its medicine- that goes far beyond the liver and digestion. In several cases since I have given ocotillo essence or ocotillo tincture with great benefit to the person, almost immediately. One client remarked, “The ocotillo has been quite powerful and amazing. I am feeling more like myself than I have in a while.”
Ocotillo also speaks to me of being grounded, ecstatically, knowing fully ones purpose and connected with ones passion, and having the ability to protect and maintain healthy boundaries, while at the same time showing up joyfully and powerfully for living in the present moment and expressing oneself creatively and the ability to be open and responsive (as opposed to reactive) to the environment, to life and to connection with others just on the merits of its appearance and its particular characteristics and how it grows. Additionally, reflections and confirmations of this information about the medicine has come through sharing it with students in plant medicine circles- in which both tincture and flower essence are taken and the immediate physical and emotional experiences shared, followed by a plant spirit medicine journey, again with insights shared with the group. The experiences and information shared by these students is cohesive and clear, reflecting my understanding of the plant, even from people who have never worked with Ocotillo medicine previously.
Herbalist Mimi Kamp echoes my own sense and understanding of the plant medicine and describes Ocotillo flower essence indication as such: “One’s passion in life frustrated, blocked, or abused becomes a destructive impulse erupting in ANGER, aggression, jealousy, defensiveness, manipulation, complaining, blaming, demanding attention, or just too much talking. Or, the repression of such energy causing mental/ emotional stagnation, LOW VITALITY, and poor self-esteem. ABUSE issues. Sexuality and vital force. Reactivity. Overly sensitive/reactive to external stimuli, allergies. Deficient fire stimulated, and a negative or wasteful fire expression cooled, calmed, re-centered, and re-channeled into self-healing and creative manifestation. Quiet strength and SELF-CONFIDENCE. Taking RESPONSIBILITY from a deep-rooted place. BOUNDARY and protection. Focus calm and thorough. Stability.”
So much vitality and health rests in healthy digestion, but also a healthy connection with self, purpose, passion, and a healthy flow of our energy and emotions. Ocotillo is a plant with a deep affinity for improving overall vitality of the spirit and core-self, the smooth flow of energy and fluids in the body, and the healthy function of basic processes of digestion and assimilation. There are of course many plants which can help us with one or more of these needs in our human experience, Ocotillo happens to be the one that grows near me, in the landscape where I belong, in the plant community that I consider my family and friends, and that has personally served me in my own journey to reconnection with self and healthy expression in the world, and to countless members of my community here in the desert. It is a medicine well worth understanding, and if it doesn’t grow near you, I definitely encourage you to work with the flower essence, as it is a very sustainable and ethical way to connect with the medicine of this plant on an emotional and spiritual level. There are many souls in the world disconnected from their roots and their passions, their sense of self, and sense of purpose. This is a medicine appropriate for reconnecting our society and culture as a whole to healthy intimacy with self and other. To me, Ocotillo is the medicine of ecstatic groundedness, and passionate and appropriate responsiveness to life itself. I am so deeply grateful to work with this unique medicine in my Home land.
Kamp, Mimi. Essences of the Desert. www.essencesofthedesert.blogspot.com
Moore, Michael, Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West.