My Green Thumb


Are you looking for a very low-water landscape that’s also low maintenance, looks great all year round and changes color and shape throughout the year? Try Euphorbias. This category of succulent is easy to care for and can be propagated from cuttings with just a little effort. The euphorbia is the only succulent with a milky sap (similar to milkweed sap) that is secreted when cut, which makes it easy to distinguish from some similar looking cactus varieties. The sap is a form of latex and can irritate the skin, so take caution and wear gloves when working with them; I wear the elbow-length, “gauntlet” type for the best protection.
The two most common varieties you may have seen or heard of are “sticks-on-fire” and “crown of thorns.” Sticks-on-fire is a leafless type but offers fabulous color for the yard. The stems change color from bright green to golden, orange and pinkish red, depending on the different stresses it goes through during the year. Very cold or very hot temperatures will cause it to color or too much or too little water can also cause a color change. Predominant shade can cause it to be greener. Crown of thorns is one of the few varieties that has a true leaf, though the number of leaves can vary. The thorns are daunting and care should be taken when working with them to avoid a nasty wound. On the other hand, the brightly-colored, half-inch flowers make it well work having. They bloom all year round and come in red, yellow, white and a hard to find coral pink. There is even a variety with large, half-dollar-sized flowers. The compliment of thorns and flowers enhances the appeal.
There is a large variety of other euphorbia plants: to choose from. Each has distinct characteristics; short to tall, shrubby to tree-like, spiny to smooth. They offer something for everyone’s taste, though I couldn’t choose just one, so I have many of them.
The photos show my euphorbia/flowering cactus garden, and a close-up of the sticks-on-fire and the crown of thorns. Of all the plants in our extensive landscaping, these are one of my top favorites. Once established, they grow fairly fast, so the look of the garden changes throughout the year. Pruning can be done with shears on the thin-branched plants but I use a machete when the thick-branched varieties need a trim. One fast swing and you can lop off an overgrown “arm” or the entire top, if needed. Running water over the cut stops the flow of sap and prevents a white residue being left on the plant. You can dry the cut piece for a week or two, in a shady location and then replant. In a couple of months, it will root and start to grow again. Or you can share the pieces with your friends. The cuts on the main plants will quickly heal and new growth will occur just below them, obscuring the scar.
If this form of succulent piques your interest, call me at (760)749-8723 and I’ll be happy to give you a close up tour and answer any questions you may still have. Happy gardening!
Monarch update (from last month’s article): After my late-season discover of a small “volunteer” milkweed plant, loaded with almost 100 eggs, I have raised and release more than 150 butterflies this year. The other members of our “Co-op” grew enough milkweed to feed tens of dozens more.