Flora: Ocotillo

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Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) stems in Joshua Tree National Park, California, USA

When I first visited a desert (the Chihuahuan, Sonoran and Mojave Deserts), I was rather surprised. I had expected a bare landscape composed mainly of sand and stone, but the place was very much alive: Flowering cacti, tiny plants, shrubs, and also hummingbirds, lizards and Jackrabbits. One of the most memorable sights was the Ocotillo.
The Ocotillo is an iconic desert plant and therefore rather exotic for me. Its scientific, latin name is Fouquieria splendens and it belongs to the plant family called Fouquieriaceae*. Interestingly, Fouquieria is the only genus within this family and in total only 11 species are distinguished. In other words: The Ocotillo and its few relatives are very different from any other plant! All Fouquieria species inhabit drylands of Mexico and only Fouquieria splendens and Fouquieria formosa spread outside of Mexico; the former to the southwestern US and the latter to Guatemala. The other nine species of the Fouquieriaceae are endemic to Mexico (i.e., they only occur in Mexico and nowhere else).
Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMugOcotillo ( Fouquieria splendens) flowers

For me, the Ocotillo is as exotic as a plant can get: It forms bunches of long stems (up to 10 m) without twigs, has no leaves throughout most of the year, is covered with threatening thorns and is pollinated by birds (and carpenter bees). Most of these are morphologic adaptations to heat and drought - so called xermorphic adaptations. In the course of evolution, leaves or whole twigs have been reduced to spines, photosynthesis is performed by the stem (which is therefore green - it contains chloroplasts with chlorophyll), and leaves are tiny and shed before the hottest time of the year. I saw Ocotillos in March that were flowering and showing "fall-colored" leaves at the same time! These adaptations to withstand heat and drought come at a price: the Ocotillo, as most xeromorphs, grows very slowly. However, in an environment where hardly any plant manages to survive this does not pose a problem.
The Ocotillo is the only Fouquieria species that is cultivated, therefore you could even plant it in your garden, for example as living fencing, but only if you live in a desert. The stems of the Ocotillo have also been used as walking sticks or cranes and preparations of the bark, roots or flowers have already been used by Indians as food and as medicine to treat conditions from cough, to fatigue, wounds, swellings or fulid congestion
Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMugSpiny Ocotillo ( Fouquieria splendens) stem

*All living organisms are grouped by a hierarchical biological classification. The binomial, scientific, latin name of a species comprises the genus (e.g., Fouquieria - think of it as the family name) and a species designation (in this case splendens - a little bit like a first name). One or more genera belong to a family (Fouquieriaceae). The next levels of classification are order, class, phylum, kingdom, domain and life (all living organisms). It may be surprising to many of you that the classification of organisms is far from definite. Entire careers of scientists are spent on classifying organisms. For example, it is not even agreed upon how many kingdoms there are (due, at least partly, to the fact that scientists do not agree on what a kingdom really constitutes). At least the kingdoms of multicellular life forms seem more or less clear: it is the fungi, plants and animals (where we belong).

2012/11/05 by Florian Freimoser
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