Botanical Name: Fouquieria splendens
Botanical Family: Fouquieriaceae
Common Names: Ocotillo, Coachwhip, Candlewood, Vine Cactus, Wolf’s Candles,
Actions: Expectorant, lymphatic, pelvic decongestant, vulnerary, anti-inflammatory
Taste: Sour, sweet, bitter
Energetics: Mildly warm and moistening
A Candle In The Desert: The Healing Heart of Ocotillo
The desert has a raw poetry that peels back the visitor’s skin, exposing shimmering bone and raw sinew until, finally, there is nothing else. Veins of turquoise and chrysocolla thread through stone and stun me into silence. My hands still smell like Larrea resin and red clay while the mesas, buttes, and crumbling redrock spires surround me and remind me what home is.
This place where the mountains and deserts of Arizona and New Mexico meet, where the Ocotillo flowers stand scarlet against the rising moon and Oshá coils its roots down into the stony soil of the Mogollon Rim, is a landscape fallen from a storybook or carved from an ancient myth. While many use the word “barren” when describing or imagining the American Southwest, nothing could be further from the truth. The deserts and forests of southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico are actually one of the most biodiverse landscapes in North America.
Even in the Sonoran Desert, set ablaze with wildflowers after a rain, there are few sights as striking as the Ocotillo in flower. Its scarlet blossoms bursting from twelve foot wands adorned with multi-colored thorns and small waxy leaves. Growing on rocky bajadas at the base of mountains jutting out of the wild deserts of the American Southwest and Mexico, La Guadalupe’s Torch is a sign of healing and heart in even the most extreme of landscapes.
The common name of Ocotillo stems from the Náhuatl word ocotl, meaning “torch”, an apt name considering its brilliant flowers and towering stature. Whenever I see this plant in flower, I think of Guadalupe striding through the desert, her torch held high to show the way to the profound medicine found at the heart of this land. Prickly as it may be, the healing power of the Southwest is intense and undeniable.
Appearing to be a haphazard array of thorny, crooked sticks for much of the year, Ocotillo only unfurls its leaves once the rains come. These flame flowered plants are amazingly well adapted to their arid surroundings, and leaf growth can be initiated a scant 24 hours after a rainfall. Their leaves are semi-succulent and waxy. Their sour-sweet flavor and slightly bitter aftertaste is so intriguing, that when I’m processing the plant’s branches for medicine, I often get distracted eating them. The plants often grow in colonies, creating compact and thorny forests illuminated by Spring blossoms, and adorned year round with claw-like thorns. Baby Ocotillos are especially beautiful, often possessing nearly iridescent bark and still soft thorns demonstrating a rainbow of violet, purple, blue, green, brown, and black. A number of birds and insects, including several species of hummingbird, are attracted to the sweet nectar of Fouquieria’s blossoms.
Ocotillo is found in the desert, canyon, and foothill regions, generally below 5,000 feet in the deserts of the U.S, but occasionally up to 9,500 feet. In my area, it tends to prefer rocky slopes, and especially favors bajadas. Its range extends from southeastern California to southern Arizona, souther Nevada, New Mexico, western Texas in the US and from Baja California to Chihuahua, Sonora to Coahuila and Nuevo León, south to Durango, Hidalgo, San Luis Potosí, and Zacatecas. I have personally experienced the plant primarily in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, and speak from my experience rooted in those ecosystems.
Blossom, Root, & Thorn: Plant Parts Used
While the bark seems to be the only part of the plant in common use in mainstream American herbalism by Anglos, all parts of the plant have been utilized traditionally and have value as medicine, fiber, and food. In fact, when I have been taught about this plant by local New Mexico and Arizona Hispanics, they have almost invariably referenced the flower rather than the bark. I have also known several Apache grandmothers to prefer the root over any other part, which speaks both to the versatility of the plants and the diversity of cultural traditions and habits. I work with all parts of the plant, including the curved thorn, preferring to integrate all possible facets of the plant and its medicine into my healing work.
Coughs & Colds
The flowers as well as the bark have long been used for treat spasmodic coughs, and while their action is fairly mild, it is consistent and widely applicable. I frequently use an elixir made of flowers, leaf, and bark extracted into honey and alcohol to treat the dry, hacking coughs common in my mountain village each Winter. Since the plant is also a lymphatic decongestant, it’s especially helpful in seasonal colds accompanied by persistent, spasmodic cough and hypoimmunity indicated by swollen glands, chronic sore throat, and the tendency to catch every bug that comes around.
The bark is best known as a pelvic decongestant, and this indeed where it tends to shine in clinical practice. Southwest herbalist Michael Moore said of Ocotillo:
“It is useful for those symptoms that arise from pelvic fluid congestion, both lymphatic and veinous…. Most hemorrhoids are helped by Ocotillo, as are cervical varicosities and benign prostate enlargements.”
I have also found it useful in some cases of what is commonly diagnosed as interstitial cystitis, a frequent urge to urinate and accompanying discomfort, but with little actual fluid in the bladder. In the cases where Ocotillo will be most effective, it will be accompanied by at least some of the typical signs of of pelvic congestion, including varicosities, constipation with hemorrhoids, a feeling of fullness in the abdomen and/or groin, and an inability to efficiently digest fats. Along these same lines, local Hispanics sometimes recommend the use of Ocotillo bark in the treatment of bladder infections. It can certainly help alleviate the symptom of feeling unable to urinate even when the bladder is full.
Ocotillo frequently finds its way into my fomulae for prostatitis and similar, and I find that it tends to increase the effectiveness of other commonly recommended herbs for this ailment, especially Nettle root and Saw Palmetto. Again, look for the signs of pelvic congestion common to benign prostate inflammation and enlargement, including a feeling of fullness in the groin and difficulty urinating. Alder bark, another lymphatic native to the Southwest (and beyond), can also combine well with Ocotillo for this purpose.
I have also heard the flower being suggested for delayed menstruation by a Sonoran yerbera, and while I have never used it this way in my own practice, it does make sense that its blood moving actions could stimulate late menses.
Woundcare & External Use
The leaves make an excellent poultice for wounds, abrasions, bruises, and contusions by reducing inflammation and pain, while speeding healing and lessening the chance of infection where there is broken skin. The bark and flowers can also be used in the same way, and I make a salve that includes all three parts of the plant for general first aid uses, often in combination with Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata), another common plant of the desert southwest. A liniment made from any part of the plant can also be useful in treating chronic injuries that present with a dull, aching pain and refuse to fully heal. In this use, I often like to formulate it with Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and find they often work better together than on their own.
Case Study - Interstitial Cystitis with Pelvic Stagnation
28 year old woman presenting with a diagnosis of interstitial cystitis, including symptoms of burning and stabbing pain as well as intermittent spasms in the urethra and bladder area, as well as frequent feeling of urgency, even when no urine could actually be excreted. No issues of incontinence, and no sign of microbial infection was present upon testing. She said that the pain and discomfort was severe enough that she had trouble remaining focused on her job as a psychologist, and made sexual intercourse uncomfortable to painful.
The client had a history of chronic urinary tract infections during her early 20s, that had been primarily treated with antibiotics. She also suffered from intermittent digestive troubles, chronic body pain, tension headaches, and premenstrual bloating, cramps, and headaches, but the interstitial cystitis was her primary complaint that she wanted addressed during the consultation. Since interstitial cystitis is thought to be an autoimmune disorder, and certainly reflects an issue of systemic inflammation, I find it important to address the metabolic and immune systems in addition to more symptomatic approaches.
Interstitial cystitis often (but not always) accompanies pelvic stagnation, and I’ve found that using general blood moving herbs as well as more specific lymphatics is often an effective initial approach to treating the symptoms of interstitial cystitis.
I first spoke to the client about nutrition, and stressed the important of eliminating any food triggers, and suggested trying an elimination diet to see if gluten may be triggering or exacerbating the condition. She wasn’t interested in pursuing that route at the time, so we proceeded with an herbal approach. I will stress here that it is often impossible to entirely clear the symptoms of IC without incorporating such dietary measures.
I also suggested sitz baths, but the client knew she wouldn’t follow through on them. I also recommended she looked into Cannabis tincture specifically for flareups with severe spasms, but there was no medical marijuana available in her state and she was hesitant to obtain the medicine through non legal means. Therefore, this regimen is strictly internal utilizing widely available herbs.
Blood & Lymph Moving Tincture
This formula is anti-inflammatory, astringent, blood moving, and lymphatic in nature. The Fouquieria, Ceanothus, and Paeonia very specifically act on the pelvic area, increasing blood flow and decreasing overall inflammation and congestion.
1 part Ceanothus greggii
2 parts Fouquieria splendens
1 part Galium aparine
2 parts Stellaria media
2 parts Paeonia brownii
Dosage: 30 ml 4x/day
This is a moistening, anti-inflammatory, and immune supporting formula to assist in addressing the foundational causes of the disorder. I often count on mushroom decoctions as the first tier in treatment for most autoimmune disorders.
3 parts Ganoderma spp. (Reishi)
2 parts Inonotus obliquus (Chaga)
1 part Fomitopsis pinicola (Red Belted Polypore)
3 parts Astragalus membranaceus (Astragalus root)
1 part Sambucus nigra (Elderberry)
2 parts Althaea officinalis (Marshmallow root)
Dosage: Standard decoction, simmered for appr. 20 minutes. 1 Cup 3x/day.
At the six week followup, client reported the symptoms being approximately seventy percent better, and was very pleased with the results and increase in quality of living. She opted to continue strictly herbal treatment rather than trying any nutritional approaches. Eight weeks later, she felt she was about eighty five per cent improved and wanted to stay on the same regimen, so I replaced the Galium with the same proportion of Withania somnifera in the tincture formula and had her halve the dose for maintenance.
At last checkin, about a year after the initial consultation, she said she only had occasional flareups, usually associated with increased stress or intake of wine, and otherwise had no symptoms. The client also reported great reduction in all premenstrual symptoms as well as the tension headaches.
Ecological Status, Cultivation, & Harvesting Ethics
Ocotillo is usually abundant in the areas it is native to, and is easily propagated by cutting, but is protected in some states, so take care to know local regulations when harvesting. It’s often best to harvest from private land, or where it’s being dug up anyway for development purposes. If you plan to have a long term alliance with this herb, you may wish to cultivate it from a harvested branch. This is also a great way to be sure the plant continues to thrive and proliferate.
This is a long lived perennial, and adult plants can easily be over a hundred years old, so treat Ocotillo with respect and care when gathering from it. Please note that harvesting branches, flowers, or leaves from the plant in a sensible manner doesn’t harm the plant at all, but be sure to make a clean cut and do the least damage to the surrounding tissue possible. Also remember that this plant, while common in its range, is only native to a small portion of the United States.
The medicine of Ocotillo bark tends to be best extracted via alcohol, although decoctions are a traditional preparation throughout the American Southwest. The flowers may be prepared as an alcohol tincture, an infused honey, an elixir (alcohol and honey), or as a tart and tasty beverage tea.
Considerations + Contraindications
There is no known toxicity in reasonable amounts as a food or medicine, but due to its blood moving nature, this is not an appropriate herb during pregnancy.
Resources and References
Austin, Daniel - Baboquivari Mountain Plants: Identification, Ecology, and Ethnobotany
Garcia, Cecilia - Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West
Hodgson, Wendy C. - Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert
Moerman, Daniel - Native American Ethnobotany
Moore, Michael - Los Remedios
Moore, Michael - Medicinal Plants of the Desert & Canyon West