Saturday, May 15, 2010


Bina tapped the scarlet buds growing from the gray spiny stalk. She stripped the seeds, crushed them against a rock, and then added nopal cactus generating a gooey supper gruel. As the evening sun set she laid against the slope of the arroyo and watched the shadows in the thin forest of spiny stalks disappear with the night.

The Ocotillo plant also known as the Devil’s Walking Stick, Jacob’s Staff, desert coral, candlewood and coach whip is native to the Trans Pecos and the desert southwest including Baja California. The scarlet blossoms that grow from the slender spiny branches have been used by natives for food and beverage. The Cahuilla soaked the blossom in water for drink and the seeds, crushed into flour, have been eaten as cakes and mush. Hardened nectar from the blossoms was consumed as rock candy.

The plant’s spiny branches have been found in pre-historic wattle and daub structures in the La Junta region of the Rio Grande providing structural support for the earth plaster. The Seri tribe also used the Ocotillo for their brush houses. The branches are still used today to fashion fences that can become living hedges when posted in the earth with sufficient rain.

Heights of thirty feet have been recorded with widths approaching 10 feet. The Ocotillo blossoms produce nectar with the flavor of honey and are favorites for hummingbirds.

To survive in the hot harsh environment of the desert southwest the Ocotillo sheds its leaves during low water periods thereby reducing the energy and water requirement to survive. Most of the year the long stems of the plant are bare showing only a dead waxy gray with rigid spines but it can generate enough photosynthesis to produce new leave buds within five days after receiving water. In five weeks these leaves turn yellow and drop. These quick life cycles may occur 4 to 5 times a year and produce sufficient sugars needed for growth.

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