The Ocotillo, also known as the coachwhip, desert coral, or candle-wood, is striking, it’s elongated, glowing green whips extending into the sky, tips set ablaze with a tufts of crimson. This large, semi-succulent perennial plant is hard to miss; it’s distinguished by lack of central truck and it’s unruly branch growth sprouting from a central point. Each branch is covered in thorns and small, waxy oval green leaves. It’s funnel-shaped flowers are hummingbird and carpenter bee pollinated, and bloom in clusters of bright red at the terminal end of each branch in the spring and sometimes throughout the summer or fall after a good rain. During the dry season, it can shed it’s leaves and appear to be a clump of dead branches, but once water is available it regains it’s vibrant, lush green. It’s typically found from below sea level to as high as 6000 ft in plains and on hillsides in coarse soils of the Colorado desert of Southern California, and extends as far east as the Chihuahuan desert of West Texas.
Ocotillos can live up to 200 years. Keep this in mind when working with this medicine and practice respect for things that have known this planet longer than you have. You may read texts that wax on the benefits of the root bark, but really the root is only very slightly more potent than the bark, so avoid collecting roots unless the plant has already been severely disturbed or uprooted. I encourage you to grow your own rather than wildcraft ocotillo, as it is a protected plant in many places. Ocotillo is know for making excellent, rabbit and coyote proof “living fences”! Consider buying a plant from one a local nurseries and taking clippings from that plant to make your own ocotillo garden.
Fresh branch outer bark, Flowers
Ocotillo is one of my favorite desert medicinals, as it has broad reaching affects, both physically and emotionally. The elegant branches extending outward visually suggests the movement of water, mimicking the venous transport systems of our bodies and the fluidity of our lymph and emotions, interesting, because ocotillo specifically acts on the circulatory and lymphatic system of the pelvic, groin, and upper thighs, as well as the waters of our emotions as well.
Physically, in the pelvic region, ocotillo has been shown to be helpful in clearing prostatis, hot, protruding, and painful hemorrhoids, and stagnant liver qi, which can manifest as delayed, heavy, or painful periods and poor, sluggish digestion. Ocotillo is an old Southwestern folk remedy for painful periods and delayed menstruation, and is also used by contemporary herbalists for toning the uterus (especially in cases of prolapse) and encouraging regularity in the menstrual cycle. As a circulatory and lymphatic mover for the hips and thighs, its known to help inner thigh varicosities and blood congestion, and increase movement and blood-flow to old injuries in the hips and knees, especially in conjunction with bodywork. It helps ease join discomfort and lightly expedites healing. Many people also use ocotillo to help release chronically stuck or tight hip joints on both physical and emotional levels, as the hips are an area of major emotional buildup. It can also really benefit those that have a hard time digesting dietary fats, which can be felt as chronic indigestion and stuck bowels, discomfort after eating foods higher in fats, or poor absorption of dietary fats – indicated by dry, flaking skin, cracking or peeling nails, and possibly brittle hair. Taking ocotillo bark after your meal can help improve digestion and absorbtion, which in turn takes some strain off the liver and gallbladder. It’s are also a mild expectorant, increasing bronchial secretions that allow phlegm to dislodge, and useful to sedate spasmodic, dry coughs, and a tea of the flowers, which are delicious and taste similar to hibiscus, can help sooth sore throats.
Ocotillo primarily affects the body below the waist. Both the bark and the flowers can be used to move and decongest emotions and the lymph of the pelvic region. Stuck energy and suppressed emotions related to sexual trauma, menstruation, pregnancy, and the prostate can all be gently encouraged to move with the assistance of ocotillo. It’s not going to do the work for you, but if you are ready and actively working on your issues, the warming, drying, and moving actions of ocotillo can be there to support a gentle yet protected emotional release. Ocotillo energetically helps us find a calm center to work from, and to walk through the places that feel emotionally impassable. From this calming, centered place that the ocotillo brings us to, we can more evenly approach emotional situations. For some of us, it allows us to respond to situations rather than react brashly or emotionally in the heat of the moment. It can also offer some of us insight into our own emotions and lead to acceptance as well as reinforcing our personal boundaries. At the same time, it shields and protects us – think of it as your “psychic barbwire”, offering you protection with it’s sharp points while at the same time offering a deeply rooted love, support, and security. This is helpful for those who find themselves erupting in emotional situations, are plagued by insecurity, or tend to feel emotionally stagnate or chronically victimized.
As put poetically by Rebecca Altman, “Ocotillo, at the core of its action, moves stagnation… Much like its branches come together and concentrate at its base, ocotillo’s effect tends to go to the root of the problem, and spread out from there. As a result ocotillo’s effects are incredibly broad-reaching.“
Traditionally, the Apache used the roots, ground into a powder, as a bath additive to relieve fatigue, and as a poultice for sore joints and bruises. The flowers were said to relieve sore muscles as well, and the root is still used by Mexican vaqueros as a topical wound healer on their horses and livestock.It can also be used externally in baths for sore muscles and joints, although I suggest using other more plentiful and effective remedies if your hurting, like goldenrod, lavender, or Epsom salts.
Flavor Profile and Energetics
Flowers are tart and sweet, like hibiscus, overall plant is warming, drying, and moving.
As a tincture (1 dropperful 2-3 times a day) or tea of fresh root bark (2-3 tbsp, 2-3 times a day) when working to move the lymphatic system.
A tea, flower essence, or small dose of the blossom or bark tincture (1-2 drops, 2-3 times a day) when feeling emotionally stuck.
When working with old trauma, sadness, and grief, try combining ocotillo with rose, peach leaf, or mimosa. These heart protectors can be supportive, helpful allies during emotional release. For poor digestion and absorption, combine with bitters and aromatics like fennel, mints, and anise.
Because Ocotillo creates heavy movement in the pelvis, it’s should be avoided during pregnancy. It should also be avoided with individuals with thrombosis and lymph-immune disorders or pathologies.
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