Developing Thorns

1339259The ocotillo in my yard grows each year, usually during Monsoon, when it rains. I’ve written about how it drops and sets leaves in a matter of hours, but I became interested in the thorns.

How does a plant set thorns? Do they grow out of the stems in a separate stage? Do they appear overnight? (I’d believe almost anything about the octotillo).

During the last two weeks my octotillo went into a sudden growth spurt, and I saw, for the first time, how the thorns are formed.

The first thing that happens in the growth spurt is that the stem lengthens and new leaves set. There are two different kind of leaves, and the first ones that set are odd. They have long stems and the fat part of the leaf bends at an odd angle.

Leaves turning into thorns.

Leaves turning into thorns.

The leaf stems are green, but they quickly turn thick, brown and . . . sharp. The leaf ends drop off, leaving the sharp thorns on the stem.

New leaves forming at the base of the thorns.

New leaves forming at the base of the thorns.

And then, almost at the same time as the thorns are forming, small new leaves form at the base of the thorns. They are the real leaves of the ocotillo. They will stay until it becomes too dry to sustain them.

I’ll leave you to see all the metaphor in the ocotillo–how they form protection that looks like a helpless piece of the plant. How thorns aren’t always sharp. They start out as stems, bendable. They harden with time, based on what the plant knows already. And then the leaves come out, at the base, to soften the look of the plant. That should fill your journal for several days.

Quinn McDonald keeps a nature journal because it’s just like real life.

The Magic Ocotillo

Ocotillo (Oh-koh-TEE-oh) is a desert plant. It’s adaptable and visually interesting. It looks like a bunch of thorny sticks stuck in the ground. In the summer, it drops its leaves.


When it rains or the weather is mild, it develops leaves.


In the Spring, it blooms with extravagant orange-red flowers. (Can’t resist the close-up below).


Here is what amazes me about these plants–when it rains, they grow leaves—fast. In hours. I have an ocotillo in my front yard. We are in the Monsoon right now, and this afternoon and evening we had huge rainstorms. Below is my ocotillo one hour after the rain started. You can see the big thorns and some tiny leaves developing.


An hour later, it looked like the photo below. The leaves are a lot bigger.


And this evening, about two hours after the rain started, the leaves has become full size. It’s sort of like an instant, fast-motion chia pet.


The leaves will stay and absorb water from the atmosphere as long as it stays humid. Once the humidity drops, so will the leaves. This happens as fast as they developed.

When I look at the ocotillo I think of characteristics I’d like to borrow: adaptable, resilient, OK with change, thriving under challenging conditions, sturdy, grounded and amazing. So the next Inner Hero I want to add is Ocotillo.

—Quinn McDonald has no trouble finding Inner Heroes wherever they show up.


Bloomin’ Spring

There’s a time of year in the Sonoran Desert when plant life is perfect. That time is now. We have a few hot days and a bit of rain, and the Ocotillo, which looks like a collection of thorns and sticks, breaks out in leaves and flowers.

Close up, the flowers are incredibly beautiful, but they have no scent. Although hummingbirds don’t seem to mind.

Then there is a paddle cactus in the front yard that is covered with blooms. In the morning they are bright yellow.

In the afternoon, they deepen to orange.

And in case you aren’t completely sure if you prefer pink or yellow, this agave has a flower spike of each one.

It’s a wonderful time of year, it lasts about four weeks, and then hell comes to spend the summer. But right now, it’s gorgeous.

–Quinn McDonald is a naturalist, artist and creativity coach who lives in the Sonoran desert.

Adapting to Change: Creativity in Action

The desert is an interesting place to live. The plants, animals and humans that adapt to shifting weather do well and thrive. Those that resist, don’t.

Meanwhile, the native plants adapted to the heat, rain, wind and ground-granite dirt. Yesterday, I noticed the saguaro cactus make the most of the monsoon rains. Today, I noticed the ocotillo (Oh-Ko-TEE-Oh) or

Ocotillo leaves

Ocotillo leaves

monkey-tail cactus adapt to the climate. The ocotillo sends up long branches from the ground. As the summer heat soars, the ocotillo drops all its leaves to conserve water,  exposing long thorns. It looks dangerous and wild. Give it a monsoon rain, and within hours, leave pop out along the “trunk” and soak up the humidity. Within days, if it doesn’t rain, the leaves drop off.

The same works for people. Those who see change as a challenge to their creativity thrive. Those that resist all change have a hard, unhappy life. Adapting isn’t giving up or caving in. It’s sending out new green leaves to soak up the life-sustaining force from what surrounds you, then dropping the leaves again before the atmosphere sucks you dry. There’s a lot to be said for the ocotillo.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach who is astonished each day by the vibrancy of the desert landscape. See her workshops and read about coaching at her website,