Euphorbia is a diverse plant genus consisting of more than 2000 species with worldwide distribution, chiefly in subtropical and temperate regions. Some species have thick succulent stems and are spiny, closely resembling cacti. They are distinguishably different by their peculiar flower and milky latex that contains irritant and carcinogenic diterpine esters.
Though there are few case reports in literature, it is apparent from them that ocular changes follow a typical course, and the severity of the ocular inflammation may vary with the species of the plant. Symptoms usually start immediately on contact with the milky latex. There is burning sensation, pain, photophobia and lacrimation which may worsen over hours even after copious irrigation. At first, there is mild diminution of vision, but may diminish further to 20/200 or counting fingers to hand movements within 24 h as Case 2 in this report. On initial examination, the corneal epithelium may be intact or with mild punctate epitheliopathy, but eventually it may show frank epithelial defect on the next day. It takes around four to seven days for the epithelium to heal completely. There is stromal edema with Descemet’s fold which decreases with time. The degree of anterior uveitis is variable and is particularly marked with certain species as in Case 1 and Case 3 in this report. The degree of ocular inflammation may also vary with the amount of sap that enters the eye. Neglected cases can progress to blindness due to corneal scarring, complicated uveitis, and anterior staphyloma.
The species of Euphorbia causing ocular toxicity reported earlier were mostly with E. royaleana, E. lathyris and E. tirucalli. Only one case of ocular toxicity with E. trigona was reported earlier by Scott et al. and they reported only corneal epithelial defect without edema and anterior chamber reaction. But in our Case 1, there was gross corneal edema with moderate anterior uveitis and secondary elevated IOP. This was possibly due to a greater amount of sap entering into the RE in our case. There was only one case report on E. milii by Eke et al. and the patient presented with corneal epithelial defect and edema with mild anterior uveitis which was similar to our third case. To the best of our knowledge which includes MEDLINE search, we could not find any case report of ocular toxicity by the sap of E. neriifolia (Indian Spurge tree). If the patient presents early within 24 h, the treatment is antibiotic eye drops, topical corticosteroids, cycloplegics, tears substitute and IOP-lowering medications if necessary. No patching is required. With appropriate supportive therapy and close daily observation, the condition generally resolves completely within 10-15 days. In case of suspected bacterial infection and in the presence of a hypopyon, topical corticosteroids may be started later once the epithelial defect gets healed.
In conclusion, the clinical course may be affected by particular species of Euphorbia, the amount of sap exposure, the time between exposure and irrigation, and host factors. Ophthalmologists managing Euphorbia keratouveitis should warn the patient that vision may get worse on the next day before it improves. It is always advisable to ask the patient to bring a sample of the plant for identification. People who work with Euphorbia species should wear protective goggles while handling the plant.
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How Toxic are Euphorbias, Really?
Euphorbiaceae is one of the largest of the plant families and includes many thousands of plants found all over the world. Of these, a small fraction have found their way into cultivation, partly thanks to the amazing variety and ornamental appeal of many of its members. Some of these are among the most unusual, weird, beautiful and easy-to-grow plants in my garden.
Euphorbias typically produce a white, milky sap, called latex, that is relatively irritating to us humans. It is, however, quite useful to the plants themselves. One of the reasons these plants are so easy to grow is these saps have some degree of antifungal and antibacterial activity, which probably keeps them from getting infected easily in cases of injury. And the saps act as excellent wound sealants. Cuttings of these plants often self seal with this latex which I find useful- saves on antifungal powders, and these plants can often be rerooted right away thanks to their latex healing the cut site almost immediately. And of course the latex presumably repels would-be predators that are looking for a plant meal, from insects to large vegetarian mammals. So from the plant’s point of view, this sap is a good thing.
Two species of Euphorbia in my yard, cut to show the oozing latex sap that flows through this plant like blood
Acalypha reptans, Miniature Firetail (photo htop) on left (or top) is a Euphorbia relative. Many Acalyphas have toxic, white latex saps; This Croton on the right (or bottom) is another member of the Euphorbiaceae and though not always sappy, it is also toxic (not highly).
These two Jatropha species are among some of the more common Jatrophas grown in cultivation. Left is Jatropha gossypifolia and right is Jatropha podagrica (sometimes called a miniature bottle tree). Both have toxic saps containing phorbol esters and are members of the family Euphorbiaceae
Unlike most other Euphorbiaceaes, Jatrophas tend to have clearish saps (Jatropha malaphensis on the left); The Synadenium grantii on the right is now considered to be in the genus Euphorbia (Euphorbia compacta) and its common name is Dead Man’s Tree. It has very irritating white latex saps and is quick to ooze them with minimal provocation. This is a great plant for my garden, but it is one a am somewhat careful about handling so I get the minimum skin and clothing exposure to the saps.
These two Monadeniums (also recently swallowed up into the genus Euphorbia) share the toxic white latex within. Euphorbia kimberlyana on left and Euphorbia reflexa on the right.
Manihot grahmii is one of my favorite trees. It is in the Euphorbia family as well, but does not have such toxic sap, though it is a moderately toxic plant. It is commonly called a Tapioca Tree, I assume because somehow non-toxic tapioca is made from part of it somehow (probably not this same species)
Maybe I’m crazy to think about collecting and planting Euphorbias, particularly in a garden which sees its share of visitors, not to mention one frequented by my own pets. When compared to a REALLY toxic plant like Nerium oleander, a truly deadly toxic plant that is as ubiquitous as Euphorbias are, and planted without discretion all over my state, frequently in public places, Euphorbias simply pale in comparison. Oleander is not only deadly toxic if ingested, but well known as an irritant if handled (sometimes with worse consequences than one may experience with Euphorbia contact), and even burning this plant can create a deadly toxic and extremely irritating smoke. THIS is a plant that should dominate toxic plant lists. Another baddy is Ricinis communis (Castor Bean) page, a truly deadly toxic plant, also commonly grown as an exotic (and a common weed in my area). Conium maculatum (Poison Hemlock) is another one that makes Euphorbias seem like candy. Still, the focus is often on Euphorbias (particularly the hapless Poinsettia)… what about Plumeria? Ever cut a Plumeria and had the sap drip into your eye… or get it on your skin? It is basically similar to Euphorbia sap, only most seem to know that Euphorbias have noxious sap. Not so with Plumerias. Caution. It can blind you, it is toxic to chew on and the sap can burn your skin.
Oleander is one of the deadiest plants on this planet, far and away more dangerous than any Euphorbia species I argue. One leaf of this can kill a child if eaten. Nasty stuff. Yet planted everywhere.
Here is just one of hundreds of street plantings of Oleander in the Los Angeles area. I estimate there is enough Oleander growing in Southern California to kill off the human race ten times over.
Caster Bean weeds in Los Angeles- top ten most toxic plants
Poison hemlock (photo kennedyh) on left- another top 10 toxic plant; Plumeria (right- photo Chris Mankey) toxicity potential seems to be always overlooked.
Anyway, most all the toxic plant lists are extremely long, with little if any objective comments on degrees of toxicity, and Euphorbias are just one of the many of a long list of ‘heavys’ in the plant world. Had they not included hundreds of the most fascinating, bizarre and ornamental plants one can grow, I doubt I would really care all that much that this genus gets such a bad rap. But it is one of my favorite genera and I have dozens upon dozens of great plants from all over the world in this genus both in the garden and in pots all over the garden. Yet here I still stand, living and in one piece despite my well known clumsiness and carelessness concerning all plants in my collection. Am I lucky, or are these really the evil plants they are made out to be?
Just two of the hundreds upon hundreds of cool Euphorbias one can collect (left, or top, are grafted crested Euphorbia lacteas, and right, or bottom, is a grafte bizzare species, Euphorbia piscidermis)
The plant on the left is a classic specimen species, aptly named, I suppose, Euphorbia poissonii; right is a lacy, pink and white ornamental garden shrub, Euphorbia xantyi.
Two more of my favorite species to collect and grow, Euphorbia vallida (left) and Euphorbia characias ‘Tasmanian Tiger’ (right)
Here is a link to a cautionary article already published on this subject: http://www.theamateursdigest.com/epoisons.htm
This article is basically a list of various Euphorbia species (mostly African) and about their well known toxic principles (most about skin and eye irritation) as well as medical uses (purgative, cathartic, etc.) followed by a serious of personal bad experiences with Euphorbias. There is some discussion of severe toxic principles of Tylecodons I did not understand as these are in no way related to Euphorbias or in the Euphorbia family. Though the article is fairly long, it is filled with very few facts and is primarily anecdotal. I wonder if there is such an article about Poison Oak or Poison Ivy. I have personally had experiences with the former and it was far more unpleasant than any Euphorbia reaction I have ever had.
Poison Oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) has been my own personal bane in the past (photo by Kelli)
I am not going to say that Euphorbias do not have any dangerous principles. They all have the infamous milky, latex sap that is variably irritating when contacted to skin and extremely irritating when gotten on mucous membranes or in the eye. Orally it is also quite irritating and conceivably quite toxic if one should actually ingest enough of it (though why that situation would occur I have no idea). The toxic principles in most Euphorbia saps are phorbol esters. These are compounds that can cause irritation, vomiting and even, over chronic exposure, tumor production (I doubt this last toxic principle is a big concern with most gardeners as few would be careless enough to be repeatedly exposed to these saps after a few bad experiences). Interestingly some phorbol ester derivatives are known for their antitumor activity.
Probably one of the primary concerns most alarmists point out is the lack of public knowledge about Euphorbia sap’s irritant qualities. Euphorbias are such a diverse plant group that it is sometimes hard to believe all these different looking plants are related and that all of them, despite their very different appearances, have this toxic sap in them. Additionally there are many hundreds of plants in the family Euphorbiaceae which are not even in this same genus that most of these also share this toxic sap. So it is not always easy to know what plants have toxic sap and which don’t. Personally, I don’t rub any plant’s saps in my eyes or put it in my mouth as I have discovered toxic and irritating saps are certainly not unique to the Euphorbia genus or family (some Agaves have toxic saps, Crassulaceas as well, many Ficus (Fig) species, and as mentioned already, so do Plumerias). I have gotten hundreds of species of Euphorbia sap on my skin and though I have gotten some rashes that burn (worst is when I get some on my lips) none of my personal experiences come close to matching my visit to the hospital after contacting poison oak. But the name Poison Oak perhaps makes the resulting needed medical attention less of an unexpected event.
Euphorbias come in all shapes and sizes -Euphorbia ammak hybrid left, over forty feet tall and Euphorbia anoplia (right) only five inches tall
Some of the most unusual plants, the medusoid Euphorbias (left, or above, Euphorbia esculenta in flower and right,or below, Euphorbia flanaganii, a common garden outlet species, showing sap oozing from a cut ‘branch’) are among my favorite species to collect.
Some Euphorbias are leafy, shrubby, spineless plants (Euphorbia atropurpurea left or above and Euphorbia lambii right or below)
and some Euphorbias are among the most noxious, spiny plants there are (Euphorbia atrispina left, and Euphorbia pseudocactus ‘Zig Zag’ I am hold a cutting of on the right… I am far more concerned about the spines on this plant than any sap that might ooze out the cut surface)
Some Euphorbias a spherical, fascinating lumps (Euphorbia gymnocalycioides- left), while others are intensely spiney, filamentous plants (Euphorbia baioensis-right)
There is also some variability in the Euphorbia sap’s toxicity from species to species with some only being mildly irritating (such as the case with Poinsettias, always present on everyone’s toxic plant lists for some reason) to extremely irritating (such as with Pencil Cacti, Euphorbia tirucali, which are the plants I handle with the most care in this genus). Additionally there is a wide degree of personal sensitivity to these saps with some people getting the mildest rashes while others experience extremely unpleasant sensations and having to seek medical attention for their rashes.
Euphorbia tirucali is my least favorite Euphorbia in terms of sap production- it is an aggressive latex-oozer.
There is no doubt that this is a sap you do NOT want in your eye, but then there are few plants in the garden you do want in your eye and I argue this is not the most dangerous of them. I have gotten some Euphorbia sap in my own eyes after getting sufficient sap on my hands and then rubbing my eyes. It hurt and was quite irritating indeed. But I had a far worse reaction when some sap from a Plumeria I was pruning dripped in my eye- I thought I was going to go blind! It hurt for days and since then I read people can go blind with this sap in their eyes. Getting Plumeria sap in one’s eye is a relatively likely scenario as one often has to prune these trees. I find it a good idea to avoid anything plant-like getting in my eyes from now on. I recommend using goggles if one is likely to be in a situation where plant material can get in ones eyes (every try pruning a tree fern? Wear goggles!).
Plumeria are among the most attractive flowers I grow, but beware when cutting the canes, if well watered… sap is similar to Euphorbia sap!
Thousands of plants have thorns which can, and do, do a lot more ocular damage than most Euphorbia saps. Perhaps there should be plant lists with warnings about spiny plants? Since Euphorbias are really rarely eaten, even by pets and children (since they are so noxious tasting) it seems their primary dangers are in being touched inappropriately. But what of plants with other unseen dangers. like hidden spines, sharp edges or falling seed pods? How many species of palms are there with stiff, needle-like spines that I have been stabbed with hundreds of times, just lucky my eyes have not been selected targets (yet). What of the extremely irritating but unseen spines in dried Echium flowers I unhappily discovered when removing them from the yard? Those took weeks to remove and they flew about in the air like so much harmless dust. I think there should there be warnings about these plants, too? It would be interesting to discover how many people have gone blind from being poked in the eye from a plant compared to the number that have gone blind from Euphorbia exposure. I personally know two people who have lost eye sight from spiny plants but so far I have no personal knowledge of blindness from Euphorbia exposure (though I have no doubt those unfortunate people are out there). So yes Euphorbias have somewhat ‘dangerous’ saps… but then so do dozens of other plants, and so on. Euphorbias really don’t compare much to the real dangerous plants in the plant world.
I think these two plants are far more dangerous in my yard than are any Euphorbias. Left is a larger Phoenix with deadly leaf base spines, and even the regular leaflets are sharp enough to easily puncture an eye ball. Right is a beautiful Echium wildprettii (Tower of Jewels)… but when it dies, the miniature spines on the dead flower stalk fill the air like glass dust and are incredibly irritating… you need gloves and goggles to handle this plant!
And really how toxic is this Euphorbia sap after all? How many deaths have been recorded from ingesting Euphorbias or related plants? Who on earth would purposely ingest such an irritating substance? Who, after ingesting it, would be able to keep from vomiting it up? This is the main reason I do not concern myself about growing Euphorbias in my yard around my dogs. Dogs eat everything as very little seems to taste bad to a dog… just ‘different’. Yet no dog would willingly eat enough Euphorbia to get very ill from it or not vomit it up. I could find no mention of canine or feline deaths from eating Euphorbias in my internet searches, despite Euphorbia’s extremely common presence in many yards and collections. I could find few fatality discussions about goat or cattle, either, and they eat all sorts of toxic plants that kill them. There are incidences of sheep dying from eating Euphorbias growing among their pasture plants but no comments about how much Euphorbia it took to kill these sheep. An article published by the Washington State University listed 40 toxic plants, most of which have caused human deaths in this country, listed only one Euphorbia and listed it last, stating it was only mildly poisonous (no deaths). And in some parts of the world, some wildlife normally eat Euphorbias as part of their normal diet, apparently with little negative consequences. So really Euphorbias aren’t all that dangerous even if eaten, though as you can see, actually getting eaten is a rare experience for most Euphorbias (however, insects seem immune to many Euphorbias and happily chew holes in some of my nicer plants!)
Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are on all the toxic plant lists are really are one of the least toxic of all the ‘toxic’ plants there are.
Surprisingly the literature is full of remedies made from Euphorbia saps, most involving native peoples who have treated everything under the sun almost with just about every plant concoction they can think of. I guess given time people will try eating everything in their environment hoping to discover some good outcome from their experimentation, including eating Euphorbias. The Chinese, which have tried just about everything, use Euphorbias to treat edema, to get rid of parasites, constipation, lymphadenitis and cirrhosis. It has also been used in holistic medicine to treat diarrhea (interesting that it also helps with constipation?), hair re-growth, asthma, promoting milk let-down, ulcers, venereal diseases (one species I grow in my garden is named for this property) and impotency. Other sites list Euphorbias as a treatment for epilepsy, coughing, cancers, fungal infections, wart removal and rashes (which I find ironic). One species has been found to contain a chemical that is has a powerful anti-inflammatory. And lastly it has been frequently used as an emetic, which does not surprise me one bit, as any time my dogs have tried to nibble on these plants (a rare occurrence), that has been their standard reaction.
Euphorbia antisyphylitica, historically has been used to treat the diseases it got is scientific name for. To me it is just a bizzare ornamental
Euphorbia resnifera is another great looking ornamental, but also now subject of much medicinal research
Though there are thousands of species of Euphorbias, and many more species in related families, all which probably contain these irritating saps, I have only personal experiences with several hundred of these plants. From my point of view, it is their thorns which I am far more careful of as many of them are quite thorny and sharp. Over the years I have had far more injuries due to Euphorbia thorns than from the evil saps within. But I still use some degree of caution when cutting or bumping into certain ‘sappy’ species and try not to get the sap on my lips and eyes since I know it can be painful. But here I am today living breathing proof that these plants are not quite as hazardous as some might make them out to be. I wish the same could be said for my outfits, many which have had to be discarded from the permanent damage done to them by getting the latex saps on them. Now THAT would be something I would like to see on a warning label for Euphorbias! Do NOT get this sap on your clothing! It can cause permanent staining that will cause you to spend additional money on replacement outfits.
Cutting Euphorbias always ends up gumming up my tools… this, and clothing damage, are among the cautions I am most concerned about when dealing with my own Euphorbias.
For more perspective on Euphorbias and their dangers, read one of my other articles here:
For some discussion of toxic plants, see this article:
While “familiarity breeds contempt” is a saying that, in truth, does not apply to most human relationships, it is a saying that often, and painfully, rings true when it comes to plants that dot the landscape.
Only yesterday, it seems, Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’ was a curiosity that you seldom saw in anyone’s garden.
‘Sticks on Fire’ was brought to Southern California from Africa by Gary Hammer, the legendary plant explorer who lived in Lakeview Terrace, nearly three decades ago. Yet, at the time, ‘Sticks on Fire’ was incongruous with most planting schemes simply because of its succulent character and the fact that “lush and green” were still the bywords when it came to local yards and gardens.
In those days, almost everybody had a lawn bordered by leafy shrubs and it made no sense to bring clashing succulents into the picture.
‘Sticks on Fire’ first came to the attention of the gardening public when the Getty Center Garden opened in 1997. This garden featured — and still features — a prominent planting of ‘Sticks on Fire.’ Still, change is a slow process. Who would dare to be the first on their block to plant a radically different looking species such as ‘Sticks on Fire’?
But after a series of droughts, and with no relief to water rationing in sight, garden design has changed. Lawns have gradually disappeared and, in many cases, cactus and succulent gardens have come to take their place. Even where complete garden makeovers are not being done, dying leafy shrubs are often replaced with succulents.
Enter ‘Sticks on Fire.’ This plant provides instant color and never needs to be watered. Moreover, it grows large, topping out at 6-8 feet high and 4-5 feet wide. And even if it is a plant that, frankly, clashes with most conventional garden fare, it brings perennial color into the garden in a big way with its proliferation of pencil thin stems in yellow, orange, pink and red.
This, after all, is the best advertisement for ‘Sticks on Fire’ since it is rare to see a succulent of such dimensions sporting brilliant color. There are many succulents with colorful foliage but nearly all of them are ground covers. ‘Sticks on Fire’ is among the most colorful succulents and, on top of that, achieves considerable size as well.
The problem with ‘Sticks on Fire’ is that it can get boring in a hurry, and may even become a garish eyesore, when it starts popping up in everyone’s front yard. If you do decide to go with it, I suggest massing it in one area since it is an iron clad rule of garden design that a massive display of any plant gives the plant in question a presence and an attractiveness that may be absent when it is planted as a single specimen.
Another option would be to cluster drought tolerant plants with yellow, orange, or red flowers around it, such as yellow and orange lantana as well as bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginiae) and red bird of paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima). I have even seen it planted next to orange-yellow roses, such as ‘Judy Garland, which complement it quite nicely.
There are two “buyer beware” labels that need to be attached to ‘Sticks on Fire.’
First of all, like many succulents, it is cold sensitive and may be damaged or even killed in a frost. This means that it should not be planted north of Granada Hills and would be an iffy proposition in Woodland Hills — which experiences both the hottest and coldest Valley temperatures — as well.
The second warning has to do with its toxic sap. All euphorbias — including poinsettia — should be handled with care, but a large fleshy euphorbia like ‘Sticks on Fire,’ which bleeds copious sap when cut, deserves extra caution in this regard.
Its sap can burn your skin and medical attention may be required if the sap gets in your eye. For this reason, it is recommended that ‘Sticks on Fire’ not be planted next to walkways where passersby could brush by it, break off a branch, and make contact with the sap.
Blue chalksticks and agaves (Photo by Joshua Siskin)
Another succulent which has reached a saturation point in local gardens is blue chalksticks. Two succulent species with leathery pale blue leaves are planted: Senecio mandraliscae and Senecio serpens.
If you have a choice, plant the latter since it does a better job of hugging the ground. I can get on board with blue chalksticks when it is used as an ocean around islands of silvery blue agaves, but am less enthusiastic when it surrounds pale green aloes or other succulents which lack blue in their foliar pigmentation.
Wood chip mulch alert
Wood chip mulch is, by far, the most wonderful material for filling in the empty spaces between the plants in your garden.
Wood chip mulch ultimately becomes the natural carpet upon which your stunning botanical beauties — your floral “furniture” — is arranged, the canvas on which you paint your garden picture. Aside from its aesthetic aspect, woody mulch prevents water evaporation from the soil surface, discourages weeds and, as it decomposes, provides mineral nutrition to your plants.
What’s even better is that woody mulch is free. Any tree trimmer will be more than happy to save the expense of going to he dump by depositing a load of wood chips on your driveway.
Well, if only life were that simple! I was recently made aware by Bobbie Orr, entomologist for Western Exterminator, that termites are a danger whenever mulch is piled too high.
In fact, a layer of mulch more than two inches thick can attract termites, which begin to swarm this time of year, to your garden. Even a thin layer of mulch should never be in contact with the walls or foundation of your home.
Wet wood, after all, which is an apt description of garden mulch, is the material upon which swarming, flying termites land and in which they build their nests.
Moreover, subterranean termite tunnels can reach 150 feet in length so that a 4-inch layer of mulch, which is commonly recommended for the garden, would be hazardous on nearly all Los Angeles residential lots, few of which are more than 150 feet long.
For more information about area plants and gardens, go to Joshua Siskin’s website at www.thesmartergardener.com. Send questions and photos to [email protected]com.
Tip of the week
Bobbie Orr has a variety of tips, other than keeping your mulch layer less than 2 inches high, for termite prevention.
“Trim trees annually,” Orr counsels, “rather than waiting and having to cut off big branches.
Removal of a large limb can lead to the death of the roots that feed that limb. These dead roots will then be an avenue of entry into the dead core of the tree.” Note: the most interior wood, known as heartwood, of any tree, although necessary for support, is dead.)
“Plant trees well away from structures,” Orr continues. “This keeps large roots from damaging foundations, creating cracks which provide easy entry for subterranean termites into structures. Stumps and their roots of all sizes make great termite feasts and should be removed.
“Shrubs should be planted and kept at least 18 inches away from structures and, especially, from crawlspace vents. This will insure free airflow around the home and through the crawlspace.”
Last but not least, “watering should be reduced so that the top of soil dries out between irrigations,” which is an excellent argument for planting water thrifty species.
Sticks on Fire
- Other common names include Firesticks, Firestick Plants, Aveloz, Indian Tree Spurge, Naked Lady, Pencil Tree, Pencil Cactus, Milk Bush
- A living thing that gets better looking in stressful situations!
- Interesting and unique coral structure ‘“ practically a coral reef for Southwest landscapes
- Drought tolerant once established
- Salt tolerant
- Easy to grow
- Used in many cultures as traditional medicine
From South Africa, Sticks on Fire, botanical name Euphorbia tirucalli, can bring the awe-inspiring look of sea coral from the depths of the ocean right into the dry landscapes of the Southwest, and you can have it without having to explore the depths of the ocean floor! The blazing good looks of this succulent actually transform when there’s added stress, in fact, this is one of the rare living things that look better in stressful situations! You see, during the winter time, this sun-loving plant explodes with its prized vibrant colors that you have to see to believe! Once summer rolls around again, the bright fiery red/orange and green colors go back to a lighter green hue, which blends in perfectly with any landscape from the desert to the sea!
We love to plant Sticks on Fire where there is plenty of full sun exposure and where anyone can enjoy the display of changing colors! They look fantastic in rock gardens and make a great addition to beds and borders. They really are versatile and able to handle a variety of conditions, in fact, they’re salt tolerant, and so they are suitable for seaside gardens. Of course, desert areas will appreciate their coral-like appearance all year long too! We also love to plant them in succulent gardens, where these water-wise plants can add curb appeal without having to use too much water!
Moon Valley Nurseries loves to grow succulents and take pride in custom growing the finest quality succulents from our own private stock of premium quality specimens. We can assure their quality is the best anywhere. Come to visit one of our huge nurseries and come to see these amazing Sticks on Fire for yourself!
Succulents We Love: Sticks of Fire
Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks of Fire’ (or ‘Sticks on Fire’)
4-8′ tall by 3-5′ wide, cold-hearty to around 30˚F, best color in full sun.
A favorite foundation plant for moderate height and hot color in containers and landscape compositions, Sticks of Fire holds its most flaming color in the winter months. I love using this dense, textural plant to maintain year-round color and interest in the landscape.
Around the nursery, it is catching my eye in a few locations:
I love how the color pairs with the coral paint of this retail display, and the blue trim matches the sky!
Our bowl planter ‘Fire & Ice’ is an exercise in contrast, showing off the cool Dwarf Blue Pickle (Senecio serpens, aka ‘Blue Chalksticks’) with the Sticks of Fire blazing in the center. Driftwood pieces subtly adorn the arrangement, and tie in the matte texture and color of the container.
One of our extravaganza gardens by Michael and Danielle Romero of ‘Succulent Designs’ (Montebello, CA) takes advantage of the coral color and texture, literally! Sticks of Fire is a natural in the Under-Sea Garden. As eye-catching as this plant is, here we also have an example of it as a team-player, providing perfect backdrop for Aloe plicatillis (Fan Aloe): placing dense, warm hues behind structural blue-green leaves creates drama, and complements the flower color during it’s early-spring season.
SAFETY NOTE: As with other euphorbias, exercise caution when handling these plants; the milky sap is sticky and irritating if it comes into contact with skin. It can stain clothing, and I always like to clean it from my tools with alcohol after pruning.
This euphorbia got its nickname ‘Sticks on Fire’ for a reason. Numerous slender stems, resembling small pencils or sticks, grow from the base, and during the cooler months they glow superbly in vivid shades of pink, orange, and yellow when grown in bright sun. The colors are utterly stunning and make you forget the warnings.
Pencil cactus is easy to grow if three things are provided: high light, low water, and gritty soil. Tip: This plant is perfect for travelers or people who sometimes forget they have houseplants.
Above: Photograph by Erin Boyle.
- This colorful succulent is the ideal specimen for containers providing a striking silhouette. In its natural habitat, pencil cactus can soar to 30 feet, and in a pot it can reach six feet under ideal conditions.
- Plant pencil cactus with Sedum ‘Angelina’ to highlight the bright chartreuse tones, or plant with Sedum ‘Firestorm’ or Crassula ‘Campfire’, whose red and orange margins pick up the euphorbia’s bright hues.
- Pencil cactus is an excellent choice for drought-tolerant, succulent seaside gardens where temperatures don’t dip below 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Looks lovely with aloes and agaves.
Above: Photograph by Erin Boyle.
Keep It Alive
- Outdoors, grow pencil cactus in full sun. Indoors, place it on a sunny, warm windowsill that receives a southern or western exposure. It also is happy living in a greenhouse.
- Provide immaculate drainage for pencil cactus. Bagged cactus soil is encouraged.
- Water every two weeks and less in the winter, and as with most succulents, it’s better to let pencil cacti dry out than to drown it or risk rotted roots.
- Fertilizing is not urgent, but if you want, try a balanced liquid houseplant food, feed pencil cactus once a year in the spring.
- Be cautious when pruning any dead stems to avoid skin contact with the sap.
For more growing tips, see Pencil Cactus: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design in our Garden Design 101 plant guides. Learn more about our favorite succulents:
- Succulents & Cacti 101: A Guide to Growing, Care & Design
- Agave: A Field Guide
- Gardening 101: Christmas Cactus
Pencil “Cacti” – The Stick Euphorbias
(Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on August 23, 2010. Your questions and comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
One of the weirder group plants you can grow are those I call the stick plants. These are actually Euphorbias, though the common name for several of them are Pencil Cacti. They are not cacti at all, however, but succulent spineless plants from various warmer parts of the globe. Though many are from South Africa, it is interesting that many are from diverse areas of the world, from northern Africa, to the Mediterranean, and some from South America, Central American and even the U.S. These plants are a excellent demonstration of convergent evolution, and adaption to environmental conditions with independent development of the “stick” (leafless and spineless) architecture. It should be noted there are some true cacti also with the common name pencil cactus (a few Cylindropuntia and an Echinocereus share this common name as well). I have grown several of these peculiar Euphorbias, though are dozens more I have no experience with. This article will be an introduction to some of the more common “stick plant” Euphorbias.
Cylindropuntia kleiniae (left photo shindagger) and Echinocereus waldeisii (right photo CactusJordi) have the common name of pencil cacti, but these are true cacti
I am not including spiny species, like the Euphorbia baioensis (left) or the myriad leafless, spineless medusoid species like Euphorbia inermis (right), in this article
This is a difficult group of plants to make a lot of generalities about, as they vary quite a bit in their ease of growth, cold hardiness, tolerance of wet soils and need for sunlight. However, the plants I am most familiar with are some of the hardiest and easiest of all the succulents to grow, not to mention some of the easiest of the genus Euphorbia.
All these plants have that well-known toxic sap, typical of all the Euphorbia species. But for some reason, most of these stick Euphorbias seem more apt than other Euphorbias to release their saps with minimal trauma. This makes pruning and moving these plants a greater hazard in some ways than I find with most of the Euphorbias. On the other hand, none of these have spines which are commonly found throughout the Euphorbia world. So if one can avoid the sap, there are few other dangers with these plants. Avoiding the sap is not so easy and it can sit innocuously on ones’ skin for hours and later on accidentally get rubbed into the eyes or onto other sensitive mucous membranes, resulting in a lot of intense burning (and potential blindness). Eating sap is also, obviously, recommended against, though it is not as toxic as some toxic plant lists make it out to be (ingestion often results in vomiting and possibly other gastrointestinal upsets, but actual lethal ingestion incidences in either people or animals is quite rare).
Euphorbia leucodendron cut oozing saps (left) Euphorbia tiraculli cut and sap (right)
Even compared to most other species of Euphorbia I have in the yard, these dinky, pencil-diameter plants seem to crank out a lot more sap for their size (Euphorbia pseudocactus hybrid on right oozing relatively little sap for its size)
Euphorbia tirucalli (Pencil Cactus or Pencil Tree) This is the most commonly grown of all the Stick Euphorbias and for good reason. It is probably the easiest Euphorbia to root, and to grow, and to keep alive in hot and cold weather (though of course it has its limits). It is one of the fastest-growing of all the succulents. I had a one foot tall seedling grow into an over 100 pound behemoth in just a few years, though it was still only a shrub at that point. Euphorbia tirucalli is native to much of Africa. The plant basically consists of a stem or trunk and lots of branches that end in stiff, tubular pale green growth about as big around as a pencil- hence the common names. Though most of the year this plant is leafless, growing points are often tipped with a few small, lancelote leaves only really noticeable if one looks closely. Flowers are brief and occur mostly in late spring, but, at least here in southern California, occasionally in early autumn as well. These too are not too noticeable. The plant is grown strictly for its peculiar lack of foliage and ease of growth and maintenance. However, maintenance is really not all that easy once this plant attains some significant size. Without regular pruning, branches quickly outgrow the limb’s ability to support them and large shrubs and trees are constantly dropping branches. Unfortunately these branches are very heavy and often damage other plants growing below. If not removed, these branches will often root and create another obnoxious shrub. Pruning these is not a simple task, either. Though the wood is fairly soft and easy to cut, the sap quickly gums up saws and clippers, and sap drips in large quantities all over the place. Avoiding contact with sap of this plant is very difficult, and just brushing up against it will often result in sap on clothing or skin. I have handled the sap of dozens of species of Euphorbia, but for some reason, this species seems to have particularly irritating sap.
Large tree in southern California (left) detail of ‘branches’ (right photo DaylilySLP)
my own Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks of Fire’ (left) and after windy weather (right)… blowing over and losing limbs is a common problem with this species
Sticks of Fire form used in landscaping, for good contrast (left); unusually red (stressed) example of this plant for sale at a nursery (right)
flowers (left) and leaves (right) of this plant (Euphorbia tirucali) Sticks of Fire form. Leaves and flowers are usually only briefly visible seasonally.
Euphorbia leucadendron (Cat Tails Euphorbia) This species is becoming more widely available and sometimes can be picked up at garden outlet centers. For a Madagascan native, this plant is amazingly hardy and resilient, nearly equal to ease and durability as is Euphorbia tirucalli. This plant is a bit thicker and much slower to form a tree shape than Euphorbia tirucalli. I have yet to see one actually grow into a tree in Southern California, but seen several photos of fairly large trees growing in Africa and Madagascar. Here in California it usually forms a huge shrubby mass. This is a neater, more upright plant than Euphorbia tirucalli with few branches that grow laterally at all. This one often is leafy (though very tiny leaves at near the growing tips) and it also has some relatively large stoma or pores that give it a somewhat speckled appearance. Like Euphorbia tirucalli, this is an extremely easy Euphorbia to root, and cuttings seem to take no matter how quickly I shove them into the ground (no time needed for a “cure” as is the case with many succulents). I think part of this easy root and lack of rotting behavior when freshly cut ends are stuck into soil is due to the massive quantities of sap this plant pours out when it’s cut. The sap quickly seals and protects the cut surface makng subsequent fungal growth less likely.
Euphorbia leucadendron growing in the Los Angeles Arboretum (left); flowering and fruiting (right)
showing some leaf formation, if briefly (left) Flowering Euphorbia leucadendron (right)
Close up of stems and fruiting bodies (left) Cuttings off my own plant (needs to be hacked back regularly)- right
Euphorbia antisyphillitica (Candelilla) This distantly related species is a North American native and though rarely referred to as a Pencil Cactus, is more pencil-like in diameter than either of the other two Euphorbias mentioned so far. This plant is also called the wax plant due to its thick coating of wax (called Candelilla wax, from which candles are often made, as well as waterproofing lotions, lipstick, facial creams, gum and floor polish etc.) Historically it has been used in the treatment of syphilis; hence the name. I find this a very easy plant to grow and it has moderate cold tolerance (at least compared to the above two species), down to the low 20F without any damage. It is a suckering species, not really a branching one, and only grows a few feet tall, forming a thick colony of pale blue-grey flexible pencil-like stems (no leaves on this one). Seasonally it is covered with attractive but tiny pink and white flowers. It is another non-fussy Euphorbia I find particularly difficult to over or under water. However, under conditions of extremely low water (or severe root binding), it tends to get floppy and grow less upright.
Euphorbia antisyphillitica (both photos Xenomorf)
flowers and fruits
My own plant in pot going nuts
Below are other species of ‘Stick Euphorbias’ that I have seen growing around southern California, and a few others have photographed in Arizona
Euphorbia aphylla (in flower on right) is another leafless species…. aphylla means no leaves. This is a shorter species only growing a few feet tall
flowers and fruits of Euphorbia aphylla
Euphorbia kamponii is another great “stick” Euphorbia from Madagascar, and one I have grown in my garden (but eventually let it rot… not quite as easy as the above species). Left is photo of plant in southern California, and right is large tree in Thailand next to Kampon Tansacha, who the species was named after
Euphorbia mauritanica, a South African native, growing in southern California (left) and flower of this plant (right)
Euphorbia schimperi is an Arabian ‘Pencil Cactus’ (left) here growing in southern California; flowers of Euphorbia schimperi (right)
Euphorbia onoclada in my yard- still a young plant, but hardy (so far)
Euphorbia gregaria, a South African species, at the Huntington Gardens
not really the classic Pencil Cactus, these dead looking Madagascan plants are Euphorbia platyclada (more like flattened sticks, than pencils) in southern California
two species photographed in Arizona (by Xenomorf): left is Euphorbia dregeana, a South African native and right is Euphorbia lomelii, a native to the Sonoran desert in Baja California.
Another Arizona-grown plant (by Xenomorf), Euphorbia rhombifolia, another South African species. It seems the incredibly hot, dry weather in Arizona agrees with nearly all of the Stick Euphorbias
two greenhouse plants in Huntington Gardens, California: left is Euphorbia arbuscula (Socotra native) and right is Euphorbia cryptospinosa
These two Euphorbias are somewhat caudex-forming and are very short, leafless species, and not really that pencil-like, but I include them here anyway. Left is Euphorbia gariepina and right Euphorbia lignosa
Euphorbia weberbaueri (left) native to Peru Euphorbia spinosa (right photo CactusJordi) from the Mediterranean regions
I love my Pencil Cactus & have had it for many years. It’s easy as can be to care for in both the home & garden. 2 things are essential to keeping it happy, healthy & alive.
I’ve had my Pencil Cactus, or Euphorbia tirucalli, for a very long time now. It’s not the original plant (you can hear about it’s story in the video below) but a cutting that I took in San Francisco and traveled with me when I moved to Santa Barbara. I first laid eyes on it when I was installing the Macy’s Spring Flower back in the late 80’s and it was part of 1 of the window displays.
Now this was back before succulents became all the rage like they have been in the past 10 years or so. The show was full of rhododendrons, azaleas, hydrangeas and the like so the Pencil Cactus really turned my head. I ended up buying it when everything was taken down. It lived for years in my home in San Francisco and now in my garden here down south.
I’m in my back yard talking Pencil Cactus care:
So, I’ve grown it both as a houseplant and in the garden. Here’s what I’ve learned about this succulent also called Milk or Pencil Tree:
Light: In the garden it takes full or partial sun. Mine gets full sun in the summer but in late fall & early winter is shaded by 2pm. Indoors this is a high light plant – it needs sun & all the natural light you can give it. Make sure it has a south &/or west exposure. If it’s not getting light from all sides, then be sure to rotate it it every few months.
Water: As I say in the video, you want the light to be high & the water to below. Mine is in a very large terra cotta estate pot (28″ x 28″) & I water it every 1-2 months in the summer, giving it 2-3 big watering cans full at a time. In your home, do the same – water it every month or so in the summer & maybe every 2 months in the winter, depending on a few variables. This is a general guideline but I outline more specifics in this post on watering houseplants 101. In terms of the Pencil Cactus, less liquid love is better.
Hardiness: In the great outdoors, it’s hardy to 25 degrees F. And it can tolerate our home temperatures & lack of humidity just fine.
As you can see, the pot my Pencil Cactus is growing in is quite large. These plants are very heavy & as they grow larger, they need a substantial base.
Size: In its native environment in Africa, Pencil Cacti can grow to 30′ & that’s why they’re also can Pencil Tree. The branches start to flop as they grow tall & wide. Mine stands about 6′ right now & the tallest one I’ve seen was 15′ in the LA area.
Soil: Like all succulents, the Pencil Cactus needs a soil with excellent drainage. If it’s in the ground, that might mean adding some loam to your soil. I got mine in bulk from a local landscape supply company. In pots, an organic cactus & succulent mix is the best thing to use. I always add worm castings & compost to everything I plant.
Fertilizer: Speaking of worm castings, this is what I amend with every spring by adding an inch layer to the top of all my pots. Pencil Cactus really don’t need fertilizing, but if you want, use a balanced liquid houseplant food once a year in the spring.
They have a dense growth habit!
Pruning: I haven’t pruned mine very much at all except to remove the dead & to take cuttings. This plant does need thinning. If your plant is in a pot, you don’t want to prune too much off the base & leave all the growth at the top. They get top heavy & you plant could take a tumble.
Here’s a BIG head’s up: the plant emits a sap which is toxic & irritating to some so be sure to read this post & watch the video before pruning yours. My cat always paid no attention to my Pencil Cactus in my San Francisco home but because of the toxic sap, be sure to keep your eye on your pets around this plant.
Pests: Mine, or any that I’ve seen, haven’t ever had any pest issues. Like most succulents, mealy bug could be an issue so keep your eye out for a white, cottony substance which usually appears in the nodes.
Transplanting: They get much harder to transplant as they get larger because of the weight issue. Also, watch out for that sap (see pruning) which could flow out if any branches break. They tend to grow fast so you may have to repot yours every 2 or 3 years.
These wacky yet wonderful plants are so very easy to grow if you give them 2 things: high light and low water. They are actually great for people who travel or tend to forget (not intentionally I’m sure, we know how that goes) about their houseplants. In the garden or in your home, the far out and fabulous looking Pencil Cactus doesn’t like to be fussed over!
Happy (indoor or outdoor) gardening,
My what tiny leaves you have Mr. Pencil Cactus!
Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’ (Red Pencil Tree) – This very striking succulent shrub is a form of Euphorbia tirucalli, a plant that eventually can grow to 25 feet tall by 8 to 10 feet wide. ‘Sticks on Fire’ lacks the chlorophyll of the parent plant and, as such, is much slower growing and probably will never obtain the same size. The largest plants we have seen of this cultivar have been under 12 feet tall and typically ‘Sticks on Fire’ is seen more in the 6 to 8 foot range. The many branches on this interesting tree are as thin as pencils and a reddish-golden color with small leaves that are inconspicuous and soon drop. The color tends to fade closer to yellow in the summer, and becomes redder in the winter and color is always best when grown in full sun. It is drought tolerant but reliably cold hardy not much below 30 degrees F, depending on the duration. Be very careful when handling this plant as the stems break easily and the milky sap can burn the skin or cause welts if one is sensitive to it and certainly is not something to get into the eyes. When working with this plant use protective googles and if you do get it in the eyes seek medical attention promptly. For this reason this plant should also not be planted near paths or locations where a casual visitor to the garden might accidentally come in contact with it. The species Euphorbia tirucalli is native to a wide range from Madagascar north through tropical and subtropical Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and India. It was first described by Linnaeus in 1753 with the specific epithet taken from the Indian Malayalam names ‘tiru’ meaning “good” and ‘kalli’ a name for any of the Euphorbia in reference to some medicinal qualities of the plant. We first got this cultivar from the late great plantsman, Gary Hammer, who brought a couple cuttings back from a trip to South Africa in the late 1980s and later dubbed the plant ‘Sticks on Fire’. This plant has been popular ever since, particularly after people viewed a mass planting in the Central Garden at the Getty Center. We have also seen this name shortened by some nurseries to ‘Firesticks’ and it is also been called Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Rosea’. We have sold this plant since first offering it in 1995. The information on this page is based on research conducted in our nursery library and from online sources as well as from observations made of this plant as it grows in our nursery, in the nursery’s garden and in other gardens that we have observed it in. We also will incorporate comments received from others and always appreciate getting feedback of any kind from those who have additional information, particularly if this information is contrary to what we have written or includes additional cultural tips that might aid others in growing Euphorbia ‘Sticks on Fire’.
Dangerous Succulent in our Gardens
Succulents are a popular plant in Central Queensland gardens but many people are not aware that some succulents can be very dangerous. One of the more commonly known poisonous succulents is the Euphorbia family. On Saturday I was given a cutting of this plant while visiting my cousin out west. Even though I washed my hands after handling it, that evening I happened to rub my eyes and within 30 minutes I was in the Emergency Dept at Roma Hospital. The plant goes by many different common names: (Firestick Plants, Indian Tree Spurge, Naked Lady, Pencil Tree, Rubber-Hedge, Sticks on Fire or Milk Bush). Euphorbias contain a white latex based sap that irritates skin and cause anaphylactic reactions in people who are allergic to latex, and if it gets in the eyes causes extreme burning pain which, in the worst case, can lead to blindness. While not all people react as intensely, the sap will generally cause a rash to appear wherever it came in contact with skin. Removing the sap is particularly difficult because it acts a bit like glue and dries clear. Even when you think it is gone, trace invisible residue can cause major symptoms. It is recommended that you wash the area for at least 15 minutes with soap and water. If you get the sap in your eyes, flush immediately and seek medical care asap.
In bigger plants the milky sap can squirt out of where the plant is cut which makes it essential for full body protection when removing these plants. If you have one of these pencil cactus please get rid of it. Don’t buy one at garden centres, wear gloves and even then wash your hands raw. All euphorbia sap is dangerous and can be deadly. I was extremely lucky that I didn’t lose my sight, although I have to use drops for a week. This plant is VERY common in our CQ gardens and succulent lovers snap them up at markets. I’m sure most people do not know how dangerous they are, or they wouldn’t have them. Please share this story.