Euphorbia (spurge) in the spring

Spring Spurge

The Euphorbia in our garden is a strange-looking but oddly beautiful plant – with a very ancient pedigree. 

Euphorbia (which is actually the name of a whole genus of plants) was named way back in the year 12 B.C., by Egypt’s King Juba II (Anthony and Cleopatra’s son-in-law), after his Greek physician, Euphorbus. The good doctor recognized the plant as a “powerful laxative”, and this ability to “purge” led to the plant’s common name of “spurge”.

I wouldn’t want to try his remedy. Our plants (Euphorbia characias, subspecies Wulfinii) have a milky sap that is poisonous and caustic – causing skin irritation or even blindness if you accidentally rub your eyes. We always wear gloves when we’re working around it.

Not that our Euphorbia needs much work – it’s wonderfully undemanding. About the only care we ever give this hardy plant is to cut down the two-year old stems that have finished flowering, and tie up the tallest young stems to keep them from falling under the weight of their flowerheads.

And those flowerheads are definitely worth a close look (more photos below).

I love Euphorbia for the splash of yellow it brings in spring, and for the fact that even the slugs and deer leave it alone – for good reason!

More photos of our Euphorbia – click on any image to see larger view in carousel format:

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About Laurie MacBride, Eye on Environment

Photographer and writer focusing on nature and the environment

8 responses »

  1. ehpem says:

    Nice pictures! When our daughter was 2 or 3 she came in contact with euphorbia sap and it raised large clear blisters all over her hands. Disturbing for parents, irritating for her.

    • Thanks, ehpem! Sounds dreadful – but good that she didn’t rub her eyes!

      • ehpem says:

        Totally true. It took quite a while to figure out what had caused it. It was during a walk in the gardens at Bushy Park in London near where we lived at the time.

      • Poinsettias are a type of Euphorbia, and I think they are also poisonous – I wonder how many children get sick from them every Christmas. Lots of plants can be irritating to the skin and it can indeed be baffling when it happens.

      • ehpem says:

        I look with wonder at all the laurel hedges around people’s gardens in Victoria.
        I had a job as an entomology technician a long time ago and learned from an old time naturalist I worked with that the ‘killing bottles’ for dispatching insects were traditionally made by placing laurel leaves under a layer of plaster in the bottom of the bottle. When an insect is sealed in the jar, the cyanide gas from the leaves kills them quickly. The attractive (especially to kids) red berries are every bit as poisonous.

      • Fascinating! Thanks for the comments, ehpem.

  2. Thanks for the little history lesson. I know very little about my euphorbia, but it is a nice addition to my garden.

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