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Ocotillo, like the stamp it adorns, proves to be a sticky subject

Ocotillo is the bane of my existence.

After I needled the U.S. Postal Service for using a plant not indigenous to Nevada on the new Nevada Flag stamp, it turns out you can find ocotillo growing naturally in Nevada — if you know where to look.

It’s a long-accepted myth that ocotillos aren’t native to Nevada. Folks at the Nevada Native Plant Society are now saying you can find it in the southern tip of Clark County, but it’s not really a representative plant of Nevada.

The first e-mail setting it straight came from Alex Heindl, owner of Desert WalkAbouts, a consulting firm for biological surveys.

“Hate to rattle the Native Plant Society folks’ confidence, but the ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) is indeed native to the Silver State,” he wrote. Surely a man who knew the Latin name was to be believed.

“To be sure the plant’s Nevada range is limited and small, but it occurs here naturally, nonetheless. Just take a drive down state Route 163, which connects U.S. 95 with Laughlin. In the vicinity of the Christmas Tree Pass turnoff start looking up the drainages on the right (south),” he wrote. “In one, at least three ocotillo are visible from the highway. I’ve referred to it as ‘Fouquieria Canyon’ for years. A bit further south, along an old wood pole power line road, there’s a small valley that’s fairly thick with the plants.”

Uh, oh. My column, which was among the top 10 most read stories online Monday, was based on a faulty premise.

I’d been told ocotillos would grow here if planted, but didn’t grow in Nevada naturally. Based on that, there was dismay that the Postal Service artist placed ocotillos on the new Nevada Flag stamp, instead of a plant that’s more representative of the state. The Joshua tree, the yucca, the bristlecone pine, sage (the state’s official plant) were all mentioned as better choices than the ocotillo.

A call to Peter Duncan, curator of gardens at the Springs Preserve, confirmed Heindl knew what he was talking about. So did the educators and all the others who called and wrote to tell me where to go … to see native ocotillo.

“The ocotillo is found along the Colorado River, but it’s pretty sporadic,” Duncan said. He explained that the red flowers, which have a three- or four-week flowering period in the spring, are edible (certainly the birds find it edible) and the plant is a succulent, not a cactus.

Bob Michael of Fort Collins, Colo., called to say Nevada wasn’t the first state stamp colored by controversy.

In 2008, when the Colorado Flag stamp was first issued, the mountain-climbing, stamp-collecting, consulting geologist said, he recognized the mountain as Mount Helen in Wyoming. He took his concerns to the news media, and a mini-controversy was born. The postal service insisted that Tom Engeman, the artist from Delaware creating all 50 state flag stamps, used his imagination to create a generic mountain rather than a real mountain.

On Wednesday morning, radio host Alan Stock at KXNT-840 AM had me as a guest. His first topic? The stamp and the ocotillo. I performed my mea culpa two-step. Stock seized on the point that it might grow in a small area of Nevada, but that doesn’t make it the best symbol of Nevada.

During the break, someone called in to say I’m mispronouncing ocotillo.

It’s oh-ko-tee-yo. I was pronouncing it aw-so-tee-yo.

Obviously, I’m cursed by this prickly plant that displays rare beauty in bloom but looks like a bunch of sticks the rest of the time.

The ocotillo is the epitome of the adage that looks are deceiving. Could it be more appropriate for Nevada than we realize?

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/morrison.

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