The field station ocotillo was a landscaping flourish, an anomaly among squat fishhook cacti, tawny bunchgrasses, gnarled cliffrose. It grew tall and spindly. Skeletal gray arms scraped the sky with darning-needle thorns. Not twining, not creeping, not arborescent, offering no smooth limbs to belly along or jagged leaves to crunch underfoot, the ocotillo hardly seemed to resemble a plant at all.
Illustration by Paul Mirocha.
Maya L. Kapoor’s “Ocotillo” is an excerpt from The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide (The University of Arizona Press, 2016). The book combines bioregional literary anthology with field guide, and includes poems and prose by some 60 contributors, field guide entries written by editors Eric Magrane and Christopher Cokinos, and illustrations by Paul Mirocha.
When it rained, smooth leaves burst along the ocotillo’s stems. Thousands of crimson flowers blossomed. Tiny glimmering hummingbird feathers—flecks of gold, emerald, and sapphire from a jeweler’s floor—swept up ocotillo pollen when the birds darted in to feed.
But most of the year the desert was so dry my fingernails left ashy trails on my arms and hands each day. The ocotillo was deciduous. While I fell asleep with sand in my long hair, the ocotillo turned golden and dropped its small whorled leaves, conserving water until the humidity rose again. Without foliage the ocotillo looked dead. It looked as inexplicable as I sometimes felt squinting restlessly across parched desert grassland to a ridge crowded with piñons and junipers.
On the hottest days, when I survived on thoughts of vine-wrapped forests with canopies lost in mist, the kind growing along the equator or perhaps on the coast, the ocotillo photosynthesized through its skin. Under ripples and striations of white and gray wood, faint green stems harvested sunlight and did the work of living. There is a reassurance in such steady metabolism, in life subtle yet inexorable. Years later I understood the ocotillo’s starkness. To live in the desert sometimes means nothing more than anchoring into soil, eating hot air, waiting for seasons of lushness. To stay in the desert means that even in the driest of times one does the work of living, confident that in seasons of sparseness there is nourishment enough.
Desert and well-drained hillslopes. The rangers at Kartchner Caverns point to ocotillo’s preference for limestone slopes, and hence large swathes of ocotillo could indicate underground caverns. Also, look for ocotillo fences at old Tucson homes, which may root and leaf out in rain. Scenes of ocotillos in springtime are probably second only to saguaro images on desert postcards.
Imagine you are on the bottom of the ocean. The desert wind is the current, and the ocotillos are those spindly sticks swaying, thin tentacles reaching toward surface and sky.
Highly keyed into moisture, the ocotillo is quick to drop its small leaves when it is dry. Then, when rain comes, it is just as quick to pop with leaves and get to photosynthesizing. In spring, popsicles of orange flowers burst from its tips, drawing hummingbirds and other pollinators. The buds and flowers are tasty for humans, too. An ocotillo is not, technically, a cactus. It is related to the boojum tree of Baja, California, which was named in the 1920s by Godfrey Sykes, after a fictional creature in Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark.” But that’s another story.
Maya L. Kapoor holds an MFA in creative writing and an MS in biology. She lives in Arizona where she works in science communications and in fostering intersections between the arts and environmental research. She writes about nature in the urbanizing West. Maya grew up in New Jersey and feels just fine about humidity.