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Monday, July 2, 2018

Part of My New Ocotillo is Dying

Q. My Ocotillo appears to be dying. It was planted this year and the left side has lost all its green leaves but the right side looks perfectly okay. Do you have any ideas what happened?

A. Yes, I have seen it before. It is probably because it is watered too often, the soil didn’t drain water fast enough and consequently some roots rotted. Common problem with some desert adapted plants. They don’t like soils that are kept wet.

A healthy ocotillo survives.
            When roots begin rotting on one side of a plant, it can lead to dieback in the tops. If leaves first came out and then died, it means water stopped getting to the leaves because roots died. If roots are dead when it is planted, leaves may come out and then die back or the entire plant can die.
Why is it sometimes ocotillo lives and sometimes dies? It is usually because of water. In some way, the problem is nearly always associated with water.
            Roots can die after it has been planted or they can be dead at the time of planting. Partial root death can be caused by poor storage and handling conditions at the nursery. But the usual reason is because it is watered too often after planting.
            Let’s cover the basics of planting an ocotillo. 
            Dig the hole three times the size of its roots. Amend the soil with compost, about 50/50, and use this soil for planting. As you are planting, add water to the soil in the hole to settle it and remove air pockets.
            Cut it loose. Ocotillo stems are tied together so they don’t get damaged when they are in storage and transported. After planting, cut the stems loose and let them spring outward.
            Stake it. Ocotillo has very small roots compared to its top. Grow enough roots so it can support top growth. Frequently the plant will not stay upright after planting because it is top heavy. Use rebar to stake the plant in three locations to immobilize roots. Tie rebar tostems so that the roots can’t move. You might have to leave it staked for over a year.
            Water it. Water it no more than once a week. At first, water near the base of plant to supply the roots water. Use a 2 – foot diameter basin to hold the water near the roots. As the plant shows signs of growth, apply water further from its base. This encourages roots to grow outward, away from the base, and support the top.
            Don't plant it in a low spot. This is where water collects and will kill it. The soil must have good drainage and become dry after it is wet.
            Some people will spray the stems with water daily after planting. They claim it helps establish the plant. There is no solid evidence to support this idea but it may help.
            Once established, ocotillo should be watered more often than cacti but less often than nondesert plants. Remember, they don’t like wet soils! They are a desert plant. Watering daily would be a big mistake.


1 comment:

  1. The roots of ocotillos brought into CA have been cut back to almost nothing. I was told this is to prevent a disease AZ plants have from getting into the state.
    Having learned from the school of dead ocotillos, on established ones I let them go dormant after a flush of leaves. When conditions are right they will leaf out again and then I will water them by letting a hose drip in a circle over the course of two or three days. An overnight drip is followed by a move to another spot about 1/4th or so in the circle I plan to water. This drip technique also will cause them to leaf out if they are dormant and established.
    Trying to start an almost rootless AZ plant bought from Home Depot or similar outfit requires a great deal of patience. I keep mine supported for three years or more as you mentioned before removing the supports and the plant must show me it is rooted by leafing out on it's own, with no water from me. Spraying with water has never drawn a response. I think humid weather can be a factor in the plant's decision to leaf out but I don't spray the leaves anymore.
    The seeds readily sprout but the seedlings must be well protected from the various eaters for a few years. I have one about ten years or so in age. It's current branches are readily elongating now and new ones will originate when the plant is old enough and established.
    I am probably being over cautious but having learned the hard way about over watering I let the plant have a voice in my giving them water and when. After all, out on I-10 there is a forest of them in the vicinity of Chiriaco summit that doesn't see any rain for many months each year.
    I have had success with cuttings also but again much patience is required. One 10 inch cutting with which I was successful showed nary a leaf at the nine month point. I did note at that point a small green protrusion from the side of the cutting upon inspection that eventually turned into a root and a now thriving plant that towers over my head.
    I most enjoy the seed planting method. At my age it isn't akin to planting a redwood seed but close and you might consider the time factor in your decision to plant seeds rather than buying a plant.
    I hope my experiences will help anyone to enjoy as I have the sudden onset of leaves from a seemingly lifeless collection of twigs and a profusion of hummingbirds that accompanies such an event.

    Roger Smith