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Desert Diary


Accounts of one of the early expeditions through the Southwest relate the sad tale of the horseback rider who, as he passed the velvety, green wand of an ocotillo, encircled the stem with his hand, expecting the delightful feel of soft leaves sliding through his grasp. People who know the ocotillo can easily imagine his shock and anguish as the plant's hidden spines viciously raked through his skin.

Most desert dwellers soon learn to beware of the ocotillo's bite, and many appreciate other qualities. Shallow roots allow it to take advantage of even light summer showers, resulting in a coat of green in as few as 3 days. But, the ocotillos are not overly attached to these leaves--a few weeks of dry weather, and the leaf blades are dropped. All is not wasted, though. The first leaves of a branch lose only the flattish blade; the leaf's stem and center support turn woody, producing the protective spines. Meanwhile, the greenish stems make food, and with the next rain, new, secondary leaves grow from the base of the spines.
pen and ink

Listen to the Audio (mp3 format) as recorded by KTEP, Public Radio for the Southwest.


Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.

ocotillo image

Ocotillo, UTEP's Indio Ranch Research Station. Photo by Scott Cutler.