Should I Water Ocotillo?

The vibrant ocotillo plant, with its bright red flowers and unique branching form, is a dramatic addition to arid gardens. But caring for these desert natives requires an understanding of their specific needs – especially when it comes to water. Ocotillos are highly adapted to dry conditions and can suffer if overwatered.

An Introduction to the Ocotillo Plant

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) is a spiny, succulent shrub native to the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts of the southwestern United States and Mexico. It is also known as coachwhip, candlewood, slimwood, desert coral, and Jacob’s staff. With its slim, wand-like branches that sprout bright green leaves after rainfall, ocotillo bears a striking resemblance to a coral reef.

The ocotillo’s vibrant display of red tubular flowers appearing at branch tips make it a highly valued ornamental plant. Mature specimens can grow over 20 feet tall with a spread of up to 15 feet. While leafless much of the year, the ocotillo quickly greens up after rains. It tends to be evergreen in mild climates but may shed leaves in response to drought or cold.

So how should you care for these showy desert plants? Let’s take a look at their specific water requirements.

How Often Should I Water an Ocotillo?

When it comes to ocotillo care, watering judiciously is key. These desert natives are highly adapted to arid conditions. Overwatering is one of the quickest ways to kill an ocotillo. On the other hand, insufficient water will prevent the plant from thriving. Following are some guidelines on ocotillo watering best practices:

Watering Frequency

  • For newly planted ocotillos, water 1-2 times per week during the first year to establish the root system.
  • During the summer months, water established ocotillos every 7-10 days. Increase frequency during periods of drought or extreme heat.
  • In winter, water every 2-3 weeks. Reduce watering after the plant drops its leaves in fall.
  • In spring, resume weekly watering as temperatures rise and the ocotillo starts to leaf out.
  • Check soil moisture before watering – ocotillos should be allowed to dry out between waterings.

Watering Method

  • Water slowly and deeply – wet the entire root zone rather than just the surface.
  • Use drip irrigation or a soaker hose to avoid wetting the branches. Ocotillos are prone to disease if their stems stay moist.
  • Water early in the day to minimize evaporation loss. Avoid overhead watering.
  • Adjust your watering schedule based on rainfall – reduce irrigation after periods of heavy rain.

Water Requirements By Season

Ocotillo water needs vary based on the season, climate, and other environmental factors. Here is a month-by-month guide:


As temperatures rise in spring, ocotillos send out new leaves and prepare to flower. Water every 7-10 days during this active growth period. Well-watered plants will produce the most flowers.


Water 1-2 times per week in summer, increasing frequency during heat waves or drought. Ocotillos can handle Arizona summers but need more frequent irrigation when temperatures exceed 100°F.

Monsoon Season

During the Southwest’s monsoon season (July-September), ocotillos thrive on natural rainfall. Supplement with irrigation only if rains are less than an inch per week.

Fall & Winter

Water ocotillos every 10-14 days in fall, tapering off to every 2-3 weeks in winter after leaf drop. Plants are dormant in winter – too much water will lead to root rot.

Signs Your Ocotillo Needs Water

In addition to following a watering schedule, observe the plant for signals that it needs irrigation:

  • Wilt – Leaves and stems appear limp or droopy
  • Loss of leaves – Ocotillo drops its leaves in response to drought
  • Soil dryness – Top few inches of soil feel dry to the touch
  • Cracking bark – Dry bark splits and peels on branches
  • Few flowers – Extremely dehydrated plants won’t bloom well

Use these visual cues to determine if your ocotillo requires additional water outside of its normal schedule.

Establishing Newly Planted Ocotillos

Caring for a new ocotillo requires extra attention when it comes to watering. Young plants need frequent irrigation to build extensive root systems. Water 1-2 times weekly for newly planted ocotillos. It can take 6-12 months for them to become fully established in the landscape.

Choose plants with robust root balls and transplant them in spring or fall. Dig a wide planting hole and backfill with native soil. Spread a 2-3 inch layer of mulch around the root zone to retain moisture. Stake plants if needed until they develop anchoring roots.

With attentive watering during establishment, your young ocotillo will transform into a majestic accent plant within a couple years.

Problems Caused by Overwatering

While ocotillos need regular irrigation, too much water is far more dangerous than too little. Overwatering is the most common cause of ocotillo decline. Symptoms include:

  • Root rot – Waterlogged soil suffocates roots and encourages fungal diseases
  • Cankers – Wet stems develop sunken lesions that girdle branches
  • Dieback – Whole branches turn brown and die due to disease
  • Sparse flowering – Excess moisture limits flower production

To avoid these issues, allow the soil to partially dry between waterings. Improve drainage if water pools around the base of the plant after irrigation.

When to Water Ocotillo in Containers

Growing ocotillo in containers comes with additional watering considerations:

  • Check soil moisture frequently – pots dry out faster than in-ground plantings.
  • Water when top 1 inch of soil is dry. Stick a finger into the mix to gauge moisture.
  • During summer, pots may need water every couple days. Daily watering may be needed in extreme heat.
  • Let excess moisture drain from containers after watering. Elevate pots on feet or trays to prevent waterlogging.
  • In winter, reduce irrigation to every 10-14 days for containerized plants.

Monitor potted ocotillos diligently and adjust watering to match their needs through the seasons.

Fertilizing Ocotillo Plants

Ocotillos growing in nutrient-poor desert soils generally do not require fertilizer. But container plants or those in fertile landscapes may benefit from occasional feeding. Use a dilute, balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10 or slow-release pellets. Avoid high-nitrogen formulas that can damage these sensitive plants.

Only fertilize in spring and early summer while the ocotillo is actively growing. Fertilizing late in the year can trigger tender new growth that is vulnerable to frost damage. It’s best to get a soil test before applying any amendments.

Caring for Ocotillo in Winter

Ocotillos require specialized care in winter when they enter dormancy:

  • Allow the plant to dry out and shed its leaves in fall. Leaf drop is a normal protective response.
  • Water sparingly, only when soil is completely dry 2-3 inches down.
  • Hold off pruning until spring to avoid cuts that could allow frost damage.
  • Protect from hard freezes below 15°F. Cover plants or provide heating lamps for container specimens.
  • Resume normal watering in early spring after the last frost. New leaves will emerge shortly after.

By understanding ocotillo’s seasonal rhythms, you can help it thrive year-round.

Achieving the Healthiest Ocotillo Through Proper Watering

From planting to maturity, following best practices for irrigating ocotillo is crucial. Here are some final tips for growing vigorous, flowering plants:

  • Allow soil to dry out partially between waterings. Check moisture before irrigating.
  • Deep soak the root zone without saturating it. Avoid frequent shallow watering.
  • Use drip irrigation or soaker hoses. Minimize wetting of stems and leaves.
  • Increase frequency during summer heat. Reduce watering in winter when dormant.
  • Address drainage issues immediately – standing water invites disease.
  • Mulch and amend desert soils to retain moisture. Add organic matter to improve water retention.
  • Observe the plant’s needs and adjust your schedule accordingly.

With its stunning flowers and sculptural form, ocotillo is a unique addition to xeriscape gardens. By irrigating thoughtfully and mimicking its native growing conditions, you can enjoy their dramatic beauty for years to come.

Conclusion: Water Ocotillo Based on Seasonal Needs

Ocotillo is a drought-hardy plant that requires careful attention to its watering needs. While ocotillo can survive periods of drought, some supplemental irrigation is needed, especially during establishment and warm seasons. The keys are to water deeply and infrequently, never allowing the soil to become waterlogged. Adjust your irrigation schedule based on the climate, season, and the plant’s signs of thirst. With its minimal water requirements once established, vibrant flowers, and striking profile, ocotillo is the ideal focal point for low-maintenance desert landscaping.


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