Ocotillo Bark

While the bark seems to be the only part of the plant in common use in mainstream American herbalism by Anglos, all parts of the plant have been utilized traditionally and have value as medicine, fiber, and food. In fact, when I have been taught about this plant by local New Mexico and Arizona Hispanics, they have almost invariably referenced the flower rather than the bark. I have also known several Apache grandmothers to prefer the root over any other part, which speaks both to the versatility of the plants and the diversity of cultural traditions and habits. I work with all parts of the plant, including the curved thorn, preferring to integrate all possible facets of the plant and its medicine into my healing work.

The flowers as well as the bark have long been used for treat spasmodic coughs, and while their action is fairly mild, it is consistent and widely applicable. I frequently use an elixir made of flowers, leaf, and bark extracted into honey and alcohol to treat the dry, hacking coughs common in my mountain village each Winter. Since the plant is also a lymphatic decongestant, it’s especially helpful in seasonal colds accompanied by persistent, spasmodic cough and hypoimmunity indicated by swollen glands, chronic sore throat, and the tendency to catch every bug that comes around.

The bark is best known as a pelvic decongestant, and this indeed where it tends to shine in clinical practice. Southwest herbalist Michael Moore said of Ocotillo:

“It is useful for those symptoms that arise from pelvic fluid congestion, both lymphatic and veinous…. Most hemorrhoids are helped by Ocotillo, as are cervical varicosities and benign prostate enlargements.”

I have also found it useful in some cases of what is commonly diagnosed as interstitial cystitis, a frequent urge to urinate and accompanying discomfort, but with little actual fluid in the bladder. In the cases where Ocotillo will be most effective, it will be accompanied by at least some of the typical signs of of pelvic congestion, including varicosities, constipation with hemorrhoids, a feeling of fullness in the abdomen and/or groin, and an inability to efficiently digest fats. Along these same lines, local Hispanics sometimes recommend the use of Ocotillo bark in the treatment of bladder infections. It can certainly help alleviate the symptom of feeling unable to urinate even when the bladder is full.

Ocotillo frequently finds its way into my fomulae for prostatitis and similar, and I find that it tends to increase the effectiveness of other commonly recommended herbs for this ailment, especially Nettle root and Saw Palmetto. Again, look for the signs of pelvic congestion common to benign prostate inflammation and enlargement, including a feeling of fullness in the groin and difficulty urinating. Alder bark, another lymphatic native to the Southwest (and beyond), can also combine well with Ocotillo for this purpose.

I have also heard the flower being suggested for delayed menstruation by a Sonoran yerbera, and while I have never used it this way in my own practice, it does make sense that its blood moving actions could stimulate late menses.

The leaves make an excellent poultice for wounds, abrasions, bruises, and contusions by reducing inflammation and pain, while speeding healing and lessening the chance of infection where there is broken skin. The bark and flowers can also be used in the same way, and I make a salve that includes all three parts of the plant for general first aid uses, often in combination with Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata), another common plant of the desert southwest. A liniment made from any part of the plant can also be useful in treating chronic injuries that present with a dull, aching pain and refuse to fully heal. In this use, I often like to formulate it with Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and find they often work better together than on their own.

28 year old woman presenting with a diagnosis of interstitial cystitis, including symptoms of burning and stabbing pain as well as intermittent spasms in the urethra and bladder area, as well as frequent feeling of urgency, even when no urine could actually be excreted. No issues of incontinence, and no sign of microbial infection was present upon testing. She said that the pain and discomfort was severe enough that she had trouble remaining focused on her job as a psychologist, and made sexual intercourse uncomfortable to painful.

The client had a history of chronic urinary tract infections during her early 20s, that had been primarily treated with antibiotics. She also suffered from intermittent digestive troubles, chronic body pain, tension headaches, and premenstrual bloating, cramps, and headaches, but the interstitial cystitis was her primary complaint that she wanted addressed during the consultation. Since interstitial cystitis is thought to be an autoimmune disorder, and certainly reflects an issue of systemic inflammation, I find it important to address the metabolic and immune systems in addition to more symptomatic approaches.

Interstitial cystitis often (but not always) accompanies pelvic stagnation, and I’ve found that using general blood moving herbs as well as more specific lymphatics is often an effective initial approach to treating the symptoms of interstitial cystitis.

I first spoke to the client about nutrition, and stressed the important of eliminating any food triggers, and suggested trying an elimination diet to see if gluten may be triggering or exacerbating the condition. She wasn’t interested in pursuing that route at the time, so we proceeded with an herbal approach. I will stress here that it is often impossible to entirely clear the symptoms of IC without incorporating such dietary measures.

I also suggested sitz baths, but the client knew she wouldn’t follow through on them. I also recommended she looked into Cannabis tincture specifically for flareups with severe spasms, but there was no medical marijuana available in her state and she was hesitant to obtain the medicine through non legal means. Therefore, this regimen is strictly internal utilizing widely available herbs.