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The ocotillo family is a small one of only 11 species restricted to the warm-arid section of North America. Members of this family are odd-looking plants, some even bizarre. They are characterized by spiny stems with bundles of seasonal leaves at each spine. A few species are stem succulents, the rest barely semisucculent. The fouquierias have a curious parallel with the Didiereaceae. The few species of this exclusively Madagascan family closely resemble some of the ocotillos in growth habit, differing from them in growing much larger and having succulent leaves. The didiereas are distantly related to the cacti and not at all to the ocotillos, so this is an example of convergent evolution.
Fouquieria splendens Engelm. is a desert plant of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. Common names include ocotillo, desert coral, coachwhip, Jacob's staff, and vine cactus, although it is not a true cactus. For much of the year, the plant appears to be an arrangement of large spiny dead sticks, although closer examination reveals that the stems are partly green. With rainfall the plant quickly becomes lush with small (2-4 cm) ovate leaves, which may remain for weeks or even months.
Individual stems may reach a diameter of 5 cm at the base, and the plant may grow to a height of 10 m. The plant branches very heavily at its base, but above that the branches are pole-like and only infrequently divide further, and specimens in cultivation may not exhibit any secondary branches. The leaf stalks harden into blunt spines, and new leaves sprout from the base of the spine.
The bright crimson flowers appear especially after rainfall in spring, summer, and occasionally fall. Flowers are clustered indeterminately at the tips of each mature stem. Individual flowers are mildly zygomorphic and are pollinated by hummingbirds and native carpenter bees.
March 1st, 2014
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