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From Tattoos to Tea Towels, the Ocotillo Is Everywhere Right Now

Jul 21, 2023

Maybe you’ve seen an ocotillo out in nature. Driving down 385 toward Big Bend National Park, the plants are hard to miss, with their sprawling branches snaking their way toward the sky. The twenty-foot-tall desert plant is beautiful, especially in March through June, when the flowers at its tips bloom a vibrant crimson.

If you haven’t seen one out in nature, chances are you’ve seen one stamped onto a T-shirt, dangling from a clothing rack, or painstakingly needled onto the back of someone’s arm. If you live in Texas, you can no longer walk into a store without seeing a drawing of an ocotillo.

This perennial shrub—which is, importantly, not a cactus—has existed since the desert was underwater, but only recently has it transformed from a keystone desert species to a keystone of popular culture. If you can think of it, there’s an ocotillo on it. There are ocotillo plates, vases, tote bags, T-shirts, tattoos, beer salts, ornaments, and hats. You can send an ocotillo Christmas card to your friend in California, where the plant is also native. The ubiquity of designs featuring its spidery branches rivals that of the prickly pear cactus, which is the actual Texas state plant, and the saguaro (which is not naturally found in Texas, despite its presence on many Texan tea towels and forearms).

The ocotillo representation is by no means limited to objects. The shrub’s name and likeness is used in company names, street signs, and sometimes as the name of towns themselves. There’s Ocotillo Films; Ocotillo, California; and Ocotillo Drive (just north of Pflugerville). There’s Ocotillo Salt Company, which makes beer salt infused with chile powder, so named because the color combination reminded co-founder Joe Robertson of the plant’s blooms. The ocotillo is, as Hayden Hyde, the founder of Ocotillo Films puts it, “the Gen-Z version of the armadillo.” It has the rare ability to be extraordinarily prevalent without losing its edge. In this regard, Willie Nelson is the only other symbol that is equivalent.

There hasn’t been a boom in physical ocotillos in recent years, but the plant remains an omnipresent desert species that other animals such as hummingbirds rely on, according to James W. Cornett, an ecologist who writes on the flora and fauna of the Southwest. “It’s the only plant that is guaranteed to produce nectar every year, regardless of drought conditions,” he says.

Cornett, too, has noticed the surge in ocotillo representation. “There are one hundred businesses that use the image or its likeness. [It makes you] think desert. You think Southwest. You think clear skies,” he says. “Using the ocotillo’s likeness is a way to attach yourself to the desert, even if you’re no longer physically there.”

Hyde, the filmmaker, agrees. “I can’t see an ocotillo and not think of home,” he says via phone. He grew up in West Texas, and though he’s since moved to Colorado, he wanted to tie his businesses to where he was from. While some of his films are about Texas, the name gives all of his work the benefit of being quickly perceived as southwestern or Texan.

Ashley Swarts, the owner of the tattoo parlor Slowpoke Austin, wonders if the ocotillo’s rise is partially related to the rise of cowboy and western wear in the mainstream—especially among folks who live far from the West. (Look to the coastal cowgirl, a new aesthetic trend that’s a blend of surfer and cowgirl—its devotees might not know how to pronounce “ocotillo,” but they sure would pose in front of one on Instagram.) “Everyone wants to be a desert cowboy/cowgirl right now,” she laughs.

For business owners, design may play a role in the plant’s popularity: as Hyde points out, the word “ocotillo,” written out in lowercase letters or all caps, looks symmetrical. The same can’t be said about the plant’s contemporaries, like the Joshua tree. But that practicality only extends to the written name. As for drawing the actual thing, well, that’s pretty difficult. Swarts says she finds the design painstaking from a tattooer’s perspective. “It’s one of those things that is tough to nail,” she says. “If you do too little, it kind of just looks like a zipper, but there’s also no clear point to stop. You could go on drawing it forever.” Still, Swarts says that she has tattooed more ocotillos than any other plant (cacti included).

Jon Flaming, a Dallas-based artist, says he doesn’t really know too much about ocotillos, except for one thing: “I love painting them.” Alexis Smith, the owner of Ocotillo Botánica in Marfa, confirms that just about everyone pronounces her store’s name wrong at first. But it doesn’t bother her. “People like to know things,” Smith says. “And having trouble pronouncing a name leads to more questions, until when people finally leave my store, I feel like I’ve told them everything I know about the plant.”

Most of all, “they want to take one home,” Smith adds. But here’s the thing: They can’t (and it has nothing to do with Ocotillo Botánica not being a plant shop). Even though ocotillos bloom all the way from California to West Texas—and remain the same species without any divergence, an amazing feat, according to Cornett—they can’t really survive in any other region of the state.

“Beyond West Texas, it rains too much,” Cornett says. “The species requires periods of dormancy—leaf shedding, reduction in metabolism—to flourish.” He hypothesizes that it is likely that bacteria or fungi in soil outside of the Sonoran or Chihuahuan Deserts would damage ocotillo roots.

Perhaps this adds another element to their mystique—the fact that you can’t actually own one. But there’s one more feature worth mentioning: the meaning associated with the plant.

Ocotillo Botánico’s Smith, who says she also works as a clairvoyant, explains that “Ocotillo has a spirit of resilience—and fluidity. It has a unique ability to come back again and again with these very resilient blossoms.” For most of its life, the plant appears to be very dead, until it blossoms. “And that feels like the timeline we’re in,” Smith says. “We’re in a place of reemergence.”

The ocotillo then, is a perfect way to showcase our own resilience, our ability to reemerge after tough times, whether that’s the pandemic or this historically hot summer. And for proof, all you have to do is look at the ink. “A lot of people who don’t have color tattoos will let me put the little red flowers,” Swarts says. “I think it’s because it’s such a part of the metaphor that it blooms at all in these harsh conditions.”

I’ve never heard someone talk about a prickly pear that way. Have you?