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The Euporbias

During the Christmas season, the poinsettia seems to get all the attention. There are related species of euphorbias that make excellent house plants for colder areas. In addition, some can be grown outdoors in warm areas, such as southern Florida, and the Caribbean.

Several of the succulent euphorbias are commonly grown as indoor plants. In general, these have flattened branches that are modified to carry out photosynthesis. For the sake of simplicity, we can refer to these as leaves even though they aren’t true foliage.

Among the succulent euphorbias is the pencil tree (Euphorbia tirucalli). This is also known as finger tree, milkbush, and rubber euphorbia. In its native habitat, the pencil tree can reach thirty feet in height. As a house plant under excellent growing conditions, it might reach four feet or so. Though the plant does have very tiny leaves, these aren’t present on older plants. The most remarkable thing about the pencil tree is its glossy, cylinder-shaped stems that are about as thick as a pencil, which pretty much explains how the plant got its common name. These stems are smooth, and have lots of forking branches.

Several of the succulent euphorbias actually resemble cacti. Euphorbia lactea is known as the hatrack cactus, the candelabra cactus, and dragon-bones. This many-stemmed succulent is very spiny. Though it reaches about fifteen feet in its native habitat in the East Indies, it rarely is more than three feet in height when grown as a house plant. This species features sturdy, curving branches. As the common name caldelabra cactus implies, it is shaped like a candelabra. Normally this plant doesn’t produce blossoms. Crested forms of this plant are available. Euphorbia lactea ‘Cristata’ is known as the elkhorn, crested euphorbia, and the frilled-fan. This plant is very easy to maintain.

The Abyssinian euphorbia or African milk tree (Euphorbia trigona) has very elongated stems with lots of spines along the ridges. Like the crown of thorns, this species has small leaves on the actively growing portions of the stems. The Abyssinian euphorbia isn’t noted for its flowers. This plant is similar to the candelabra plant, but its ‘leaves’ are concentrated close to the terminal ends of the stems.

Euphorbia ingens seemingly lacks a common name. Like the Abyssinian
euphorbia, this species is a tall plant with a narrow outline. In form, it bears some resemblance to the native saguaro cactus found in the southwestern U.S. This has small spines along the edges of the branches.


All of these plants can be easily propagated from cuttings. As with all the Euphorbias, the cut ends will release whitish sap. To stem the flow, place the cut edge under cold running water. Spray the cut end on the mother plant with water. That should do the trick. Before potting the new cutting, allow it to dry out for a day or so to discourage rot.

So far as care is concerned, these require the same conditions as most succulents. They need full sun, and warm temperatures. Watering is also the same, which means letting them dry out between waterings Water less frequently when the plants are dormant.

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