Botanical Name: Fouquieria splendens
Common Names: Ocotillo, Coachwhip, Candlewood, Apache Whipping Stick, Vine Cactus, Wolf’s Candles
Actions: Expectorant, lymphatic, pelvic decongestant, vulnerary, anti-inflammatory
Taste: Sour, Sweet, Bitter
Energetics: Mildly warming and moistening
Walking through the Sonoran desert of Arizona with my niece, we imagine what times were like before civilization. When plants and humans lived in harmony on this land and spoke to each other in a language of love. Seemingly barren, there is life everywhere. It may not be lush and inviting but it is beautiful nonetheless. Saguaros dot the red rocks that rise as if from nowhere. Lizards and snakes take refuge under bushes and rocks, and ocotillo reach for the sky, towering over most other plants. The desert is quiet and few plants are in bloom. Yellow, pink, red. Colors that you don’t expect to see out here, among the coppery landscape. My niece says, “it is easy to see why native people were so spiritual.” I nod in agreement and look around. Yes. It is easier to hear the whispers here. To see far into the horizon. To watch the mirage in the distance, blurring the lines between what is real and what is not. We arrive at a gathering of Ocotillos. I approach them with a sense of reverence. She stands back and tells me to be careful, knowing that thorns are all around and that permission must be asked before getting too close. I slowly trace my gaze up its branches and admire its courage to be here. Still and serene. Filled with ancient myths and stories of survival.
Not surprisingly, plants beckon for a reason. The week prior, I had gone to see my Ayurvedic practitioner and explained what was happening in my body. Stagnation around my cycle, which was highly unusual for me. He explained that there was liver qi deficiency. Energy wasn’t freely flowing throughout my body. Ocotillo is known for moving stagnation, specifically in the pelvic region and the very same day as I sat with its medicine, I started to flow freely. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but such an apt coincidence if so.
The common name for Ocotillo stems from the Náhuatl word octl, meaning “torch”. Ocotillo is found in the desert, canyon and foothill regions, generally below 5,000 feet in the deserts. While the bark is most commonly used, indigenous people have used the whole plant including the flowers and the root.
Blood and Lymphatic Congestion
Ocotillo seems to have an affinity for the pelvic region, moving blood and lymphatic stagnation. In men, this often manifests as prostate issues, notably prostatitis, pain, trouble maintaining erections, and ejaculation issues. In women, it manifests as inconsistent "flow" so it can manifest as things like fibroids, endometriosis, spotting, cramping, and slow-to start or slow-to-finish cycles.
Liver Qi Stagnation
Liver qi is responsible for moving energy throughout the body. Since energy can also be emotional, oftentimes liver stagnation can be caused by repression of emotions. Emotions that are not expressed tend to be stored in our bodies and to fester. Without properly expressing our emotions, the liver can be overloaded and become stagnant. Ocotillo helps move this energy down and out of the body and helps release unexpressed emotions.
Stress can also cause liver/lymphatic stagnation. Tension causes the body to tighten and restricts the movement of fluids and energy. When we are stressed we are tense, have shallow breathing and tend to close up, rather than open up. Lymphatic stagnation can also be the cause of poor wound healing, frequent low-grade infections, skin and mucosa irritations and infections, food allergies, intestinal bacterial or fungal issues such as ‘candidiasis’ and such. Ocotillo makes a useful and strongly moving addition to a formula that supports lymphatic and liver function, in transporting waste products and fighting infection.
Coughs and Colds
The flowers and leaves of Ocotillo have been used to treat spasmodic coughs. Since it is also a lymphatic decongestant, it is especially helpful in seasonal colds accompanied by persistent, spasmodic cough and low immunity.
The leaves of ocotillo make an excellent poultice for wounds, abrasions, bruises and inflamed regions.
Ocotillo is a long-lived perennial, and adult plants can be over 100 years old, so treat Ocotillo with respect and care when gathering from it. Be sure to make a clean cut and do the least damage to the surrounding tissue. Although this plant is common to its range, it is native only to a small portion of the US, so harvest responsibly and with care.
Cautions and Contraindications
Due to the heavy movement in the pelvis, its contraindicated in pregnancy. It’s also contraindicated with thrombosis and lymph-immune pathologies.
Kiva Rose: Materia Medica: Profiles and Uses of Herbs
Michael Moore: Medicinal Plants of Desert Canyon West