Rhode Island professor continues lifelong study of Ocotillo plant

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Keith Killingbeck, a professor emeritus of biological sciences at University of Rhode Island (URI), is still looking for answers from the Ocotillo plant he has studied for much of his adult life.

Killingbeck, a local expert in the northeast on fall foliage, developed an interest in the desert plant during his first sabbatical at New Mexico State University. The interest only grew during his 36 years teaching at URI and his tenure as the associate dean of the graduate school.

After retiring in 2015, Killingbeck could focus on the puzzling plants that are indigenous to the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts in the Southwestern U.S. The plant, which is not a true cactus, appears to be a grouping of large, dead sticks at first glance. Digging deeper, one can see the stems are partly green. When it rains, the plant grows small oval leaves that can remain for lengthy periods.

Unlike most plants that follow normal growth and dormancy seasonally, the Ocotillo can produce and lose leaves much of the year.

Killingbeck and other scientists research this plant in the hopes that their findings will become a baseline for nutrient reabsorption in plants.

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