The following is a monograph I wrote for Plant Healer Magazine, on one of my all time favourite herbs, ocotillo. Its one of the four herbs I’ll be focusing on in my class next week at the Herbfolk Gathering. I use it so frequently, for such a multitude of issues, and find that the changes it affects in a person are both long-term and profound. These are some of my thoughts on it, organised into monograph format.
Ocotillo: Fouquieria splendens.
Energetics: warming, drying, moving.
Actions: Liver stimulant, portal stimulant, circulatory stimulant, lymphagogue.
I was hiking with a friend in the desert. It was night time, there was a full moon high in the sky, and we were making our way to a favourite spot of ours to sit and look out over the desert and chat. The wash we were in became a canyon, the cool grey walls climbing higher on either side. The scent of desert lavender and creosote filled the crisp night air. Silence reigned, punctuated by the crunch of desert floor under our feet and the occasional coyote yip in the distance.
Stillness. One of the things that always strikes me about the desert is how still it is. I don’t mean devoid of life, as once you learn to pay attention to small details you notice the life everywhere: a lizard here, a snake camouflaged under a bush there, small pieces of green shooting out between rocks. But deserts are still because they are masters of efficiency. Why move so much when it’s hot? Why waste water when it is scarce? Movement in the desert (as with most things in the desert) is subtle, and interestingly, in such a dry place, this subtle movement is about water. Water conservation, water movement, water storage. Water strikes the surface of the desert in a monsoon and within days the hillsides and washes are ablaze with colour as life springs up from every crack, every crevice. Fluid dynamics, when observed in a dry place, take on an entirely different meaning, as desert plants seize the opportunity to grow as soon as it presents itself.
There’s a narrow path that makes its way up the canyon wall, and at the top, barrel cactus sentinels stand as lookouts. We passed them, carefully, and came out onto a field of ocotillo. We walked in silence, the moon so big and bright that it cast shadows around us, and at one point, when we came into view of one of the biggest and oldest ocotillos in the area, she stopped, grabbed my arm and, staring directly at the big old plant with its bright red blooms ablaze in the night sky, she whispered ‘what. IS. that?’.
But in order to explain why this was such a big deal, I need to explain a little bit about ocotillo itself, and then about my friend’s health history…