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Is it a Harbinger of Spring, or of DEATH???

by germinatrix | March 8th, 2010

euphorbia 'blackbird' and its pom poms of bloom

When you live in a place like Southern California, where there is no snow, where the skies are usually sunny, where a cold snap means you are wearing a sweater instead of a tank top, how do you know when spring is coming?

Before I was a gardener, I had no idea about the subtlety of the seasons. If it was cold – it was winter, if it was hot – it was summer; spring and fall were those times in between that people on the East Coast made a big deal about. I imagine that if your winter has been dark, bleak, and covered with snow, then it is an incredible thing to see the first sturdy green shoots pushing themselves up out of thawing soil, and I understand how the sight of swelling buds on naked branches would make your heart beat faster. But for me, there has been beauty all winter long! Grasses have been feathery and dancing with the winter winds. Aloes have been blooming with a crazy abandon. Passionflowers never stop! What could spring mean for the no-holds barred  beauty bazaar that is my part of the world?

Well, whatever it means, for me, spring is very anticipated, and I can say why in one word: Euphorbias.

a seedling of e. 'portuguese velvet' opens its little eyes...

I am constantly saying that this plant is my favorite or that I die over that plant, (I can’t help it! My heart is too big!) but there is a special place that euphorbias will always occupy in my garden palettes. This is a huge family of plants; the ones I particularly adore are the perennial euphorbias with the strange domes of blooms – these are my personal heralds of spring.

People adore euphorbias. Almost every client requests euphorbias, and I am super happy to use them in any planting scheme! The only hitch has been bad press – many websites targeted to mothers of young children have identified euphorbias as “poisonous”.  There is a near hysteria brewing on the web about the horrors of euphorbia sap – if ONE DROP gets on your skin or in your eye it can cause blindness or death!!!

is this an evil toxic killer of children?

I have read pages and pages of stories about the awful things that have happened to people who merely brush up against euphorbias, or herds of cattle whose faces were maimed because they walked through a stand of Euphorbia tirucalli. There is the story of the man in South Africa who died because euphorbia latex got into his eye and created a massive infected ulcer. I think this is an urban myth. I want pictures of this man. I will not be afraid of one of my favorite plants because of a worldwide campaign of terror being waged by overprotective Moms! (True story – a woman rang my doorbell, holding her daughter’s hand, and asked me if I was aware that the euphorbias I planted in my front yard were poisonous and could put her child in danger. I told her if she believed that, it would be a good idea to keep her child out of my garden – especially when I never invited her there in the first place.)

euphorbias just want to be cool and beautiful. don't be a hater.

I have had euphorbia sap all over me. The worst thing that has ever happened is the inside of my elbow was itchy for a few hours. I accidentally rubbed my eye once after I cut my E. ‘Stix on Fire’ – it didn’t feel good, but rubbing my eyes after handling chile peppers feels WAY worse. Maybe I’m one of the lucky ones. As I understand it, the milky sap of euphorbias can cause a dermatological reaction in those who are sensitive to latex. Okay, not good – but should we REALLY  demonize this fantastic, useful, drought tolerant garden superstar because of a rash? Even if it’s a bad rash? There are LOTS of plants we use in gardens that are toxic on some level – let’s not go crazy over the bad plant of the year, okay?

Relax and enjoy the show. It’s just beginning…

25 Responses to “Is it a Harbinger of Spring, or of DEATH???”

  1. Suasoria says:

    Love them. If they have spikes and keep the kids out of the yard, even better.

  2. Love, love, love Euphorbias. There are only two that I have found really tolerate me. Neither is as spectacular as what you can grow. Dang, girl you got me in zonal fixation again!

  3. Hey there, years ago our friend and neighbor at the time, Jon Bok, got sap from a pencil cactus in his eye and went blind. He ended up in the AIDS ward at county (he was still a starving artist) for some months. Then, miraculously, he could suddenly see again. After that he got serious about his art and his career took off. Hmmmm.
    Is the pencil cactus a type of Euphorbia?
    They look beautiful.

  4. I’m a fan.
    The far end of my front yard hell strip is mostly planted with Euphorbia wulfinii with a few Agaves mixed in.
    It offers great color and is an awesome deterrent to cars and pedestrians.
    No one likes to be poked with the Agaves or sapped into itching for a dozen hours.
    When I prune the Euphorbias back I’m careful not to get it all over my skin, but at times this has happened and I end up itching for an hour or so.
    The cross one has to bear for horticultural beauty and shrewd roadside plant choice.

  5. I learned long ago never to google whether something is poisonous to pets or children, because the answer is ALWAYS yes, and there will ALWAYS be reports varying in hysteria.

    If there’s something people have license to get crazy over, it’s their kids and pets. I always grant them that crazy and move on, forming my own objective opinion outside the sphere of crazy.

    It’s the doorbell ringers with whom I take issue.

    (Ironic kids/pets aside: a woman I knew once was offended because I named my dog a name I’ve never known anyone to be called, but her child had multiple friends by this name [I had no idea], and thus her child could’ve conceivably shared a name with my dog.)

    ANYWHO! I love Euphorbias. I don’t grow any, but I’ve meant to. Maybe it’s time to order those E. myrsinites seeds…

  6. Susa! Hi! The spikier the better – euphorbia milii! That’s a perfect hellstrip plant if I’ve ever heard of one! Good to hear from you again, hope all is well in your world!

    Susan dear! I’m sorry to toss my euphorbias in your face! Forgive me! They ARE so great, aren’t they? I say even the rash is worth it…

    I remember Jon Bok, Ann! He taught at Cal/Arts for a while, didn’t he? In his case, I think the euphorbia in the eye was a positive thing – oftentimes an artist needs to suffer greatly. Maybe his temporary blindness wasn’t totally due to the Euphobia tirucalli – maybe it was just the catalyst to change his vision from whatever it was before to the thing that caused his career to kick in. You never know. Maybe the euphorbia was, in this case, a visionary potion!

    Oh Yes, Michelle D – you are singing my song (yet again!) Agaves and euphorbias mixed with muhlenbergia capilaris are going to be the backbone of my new hellstrip planting! Since I live 2 blocks away from a highschool, I need all the pedestrian deterrence I can get! Even if I get a little rash planting, I can deal with another itchy elbow to make my strip gorgeous and teenager-proof!

    Hey Andrew! You are SO RIGHT! I am never going to google poisonous or toxic plants ever again. It is a total horrorshow – hysteria runs rampant!
    I tend to let people get all nuts with kid/pet issues, too – but I grumble about it. Sometimes I try and talk them out of whatever issue it is, but only halfheartedly, since I know I won’t win. I did get snippy with the front yard euphorbia lady, because she totally asked for it!
    By any chance was your dogs name Talullah?
    Get those seeds, friend!!! You will be a Euphorbia fiend!!!

  7. When I saw the thumbnail announcing your post on FB I thought it was castor bean plant, and while the site was loading, I pondered whether or I’d vote for or against (I could go either way). Imagine my surprise when I saw innocent euphorbias instead! Euphorbia is one of the largest genera with 1,600-plus species that have in common milky sap that to one degree or another can cause an allergic reaction. Poinsettia, spurge, the list goes on and on. Succulent euphorbias can lactate like mammals, though, so it’s wise to be cautious. Watch out for E. resinifera in particular. I have a neighbor who planted E. tirucalli around his ranch as a fence. He got the sap in his eye while trimming it. “Did you go to the hospital?” I asked. “No,” he replied, “I was in too much pain.”
    So when my son said he didn’t want it in his yard because he has a toddler, I didn’t disagree.

  8. That is an awesome response! (Unfortunately, I probably would have just stood there with a confused look on my face and said something stupid like, “Uh, what? Are you SERIOUSLY ringing my doorbell about this?!”)

    But then, I don’t have any issues with the euphorbias I’ve known–including the pencil trees that I trim up at the botanical garden while I volunteer. And the various hardy forms I see up here.

  9. LOVE all Euphorbias. Just have pity for those unsophisticated souls who do not realize that a garden has no DEPTH without a little DANGER. Brugmansia anyone? Couldn’t be without it. And (dare I say) Opium poppies. Only because they are beautiful of course.

  10. OMG! If someone actually came to my door to say something negative about my Euphorbia I would want to slap them! I’ve had people stop me many times to ask what they are, which always surprises me. You see so many of them here in Portland, they are everywhere. I have gotten the sap on my skin, no matter how hard I try not to and it does itch, but it would NEVER stop me from planting them. Of course I’m not a great example as dangerous plants are my thing. I just started several Castor Bean seeds and in doing do (bending over to get the bag of soil) I managed to stab myself in the cheek with an agave spike. That’s life in the danger garden….

  11. Those are some gorgeous flowers on the euphorbias. matti

  12. I love euphorbia- I admit, I am overly cautious. So, I planted it all in my front yard so that it would hurt other people’s kids and not my own. Hahahaha…. Nah, seriously, I did plant it all in the front yard so that my daughter doesn’t get all itchy and whiny if for some reason she decides to roll around in the backyard. For the most part I always just have people comment on how much they love the euphorbia- they just hate everything else I’ve done….haha…

  13. Euphorbs are the best. When I prune the E. cotinifolia (tree in our zone) the sap gums up the pruners and is hard to wash off my hands — and that’s it. No rash, nothing. And did you ever hear the story of a fateful family picnic that included roasting hot dogs on oleander branches? Still not sure if that’s an urban legend or not. People wouldn’t, would they?

  14. I need a bumper sticker that reads – I’m a mom AND I plant Euphorbias!

    My beautiful dwarf E. characias are blooming in my parking strip right now. Told my son to not grab them, end of story. Some people act like poisonous/irritant plants will come attack their children while they sleep.

  15. Debra! Well, coming from YOU, I will accept the warnings … because your info is SOLID and EXPERT! It’s funny, I think I am just one of the lucky ones – or I have been lucky so far – nothing more than itchiness. I have to admit that the factoid about Euphorbias lactating like mammals is so gross and fascinating that I was preparing for a dream where Euphorbias sprouted nipples and were breastfeeding … well, I’m sure that is WAY too much info! Thankfully, no dreams of breastfeeding euphorbias last night!

    Kim, that was one of the few times in my life that the right bitchy answer to a bitchy comment came out of my mouth at the right time – usually I think up the perfect answer a couple of hours later and kick myself for not being witty enough!

    Laura dear – TOTES! (meaning ‘totally’, not ‘tote bags’) A little danger is valuable – there is NO SEXY without a little danger, and I think sexy is essential to a great garden! By the way, you need to meet Loree from Portland, author of a great blog “Danger Garden” (it’s in my blogroll) – she sings our song in perfect harmony!

    Loree, meet Laura, who is the woman behind the beautiful garden featured in my last video! Laura’s is a big danger garden as well – you two are extreme plant lovers of the highest order!
    Hahaha – it would be SO FUNNY to slap someone who insulted your euphorbia! Next time I’ll see if I could muster up the courage. Or maybe I’ll just have to do a dream sequence in an upcoming video! I hope your eye is okay – we who garden dangerously live with the evidence, right? Our scars are badges of honor! But seriously, I often think I should wear goggles when I’m doing serious work around my agaves!

    Well thanks Matti – those are some awesome flowers. Some of my favorites. I like little, unusual flowers rather than the big, over the top kind. I really like your blog, by the way!

    Carri, how can ANYONE say a THING about the wonders you are creating? People are weird. And it’s good to be cautious, just not a complete loon about it! The fact that you planted it at all shows that you have a balanced outlook that your little girl is going to benefit from. Right on, I say. Moms who plant euphorbias carefully and well get extra bonus points in my book!

    Denise, I DID hear about that story of the Oleander weenie roast! That HAS to be an urban legend – maybe that has to be researched for an upcoming blog post. I think some people just don’t know, but those would make the WORST branches to roast anything on, don’t you think? I mean, just the branch itself doesn’t seem like it would work.
    We have to get to the bottom of this.

    YAY – Euphorbia loving Moms unite! (I’m not a Mom, but I will happily endorse a club and be a part of it!) High five for having perspective… I understand the worry, but truly, the plant is NOT going to be hiding under the bed, waiting to gobble up your kid. I love that image … there is a horror movie in this, I know it!

  16. Hmm… if you guys have heard of the oleander roast, it *must* be an urban legend, because I thought that happened in south Tx. Anyway, gorgeous photos. I love euphorbias and have several of them, which my cats have never bothered. Any kid young enough to stick random plants in his/her mouth should not be allowed to wander in strange gardens. And yeah, there are tons of other plants that are toxic, but who ever gripes about tomatos?

  17. Or tomatoes.
    P.S. I love how the title “Confessions of a Flower Hater” appears right next to that gorgeous Blackbird bloom.

  18. Well here’s my solution – I like to plant things but I don’t like to take care of them. So no worries with Euphorbia or anything because if its at my house itit will probably only get pruned if it’s in danger of eating the house.

    Did the doorbell-ringing mommy understand that although plants are alive, they can’t actually chase you down and lick you with their sappy, poison-dripping leaves?

  19. My favorite, favorite, FAVORITE plants are Euphorbias. I can’t wait for you to come to my garden and see for yourself!!! And you know what? I get that sap all OVER my skin and I’ve never had a rash or one little itch. And I tend to have fussy skin, too. Nary a red bump! Though I definitely don’t use it as an eye-wash, I tend to think it’s dependent on the variety, and the person – I’ve planted them at almost every garden I’ve designed, and believe me, I get a TON of emails from former clients asking about this or that, and have never heard from anyone about losing an arm to sap…..but that’s not to say it couldn’t happen…I’m just sayin’ people…

    Oh – and regarding that woman who rang your doorbell? I think she was a mom at our elementary school, who once scolded me for planting something w/potentially poisonous berries that her TODDLER was trying to eat. I asked her if she’d heard about Darwin’s Theory…honest to God….and she stormed off. I was sure I’d get kicked off the Landscaping Committee, but when I realized I was the only one ON the Landscaping Committee I high-fived myself and gave myself a promotion…

  20. Ivette,
    A Euphorbia post! How did you crawl into my brain for that one? I am SO passionate about this family of plants! I’ve been a collector for years and have tried all of the hardy varieties that I can get my hands on waaaay up here, which is actually quite a number.
    I’m planning a whole Euphorbia profile for later on this year- hope I can hold a candle to yours!
    On the poisonous point: It never fails that at Christmas time there is that old inevitable debate that comes up about this plant family which other bloggers SO deftly handled last season.
    My take on it, as a response? If your kid or your pet is eating more than enough of that plant to get a stomach ache, then you have WAY bigger problems than the plant!!!
    Great job!

  21. Beauty that stings, love it!

  22. But Summer, now I’m re-thinking the whole “Urban Legend’ thing because I’m FROM South Texas! Maybe I heard about it because it happened close to my house or something! YIKES!
    Yes – I agree – kids should really not be wandering around putting plants in their mouths. Thankfully, most of the gardening Moms I know are the cool, tough kind that teach their kids and don’t freak out easily!

    Susan M.! Doll! Yes – plants do NOT uproot themselves and go bounding around trying to find children to give rashes to. But the woman who rang my doorbell did not know this – I think she was one step away from calling the police! … and I tend to encourage house-eating plants, so maybe THAT’s why I’ve never had a problem with Euphorbia sap! XO!

    Sweet, again, you KILL me! If I was on the Landscaping Committee with you, we would have kicked everybody’s ass – even if there was nobody else on the committee. We’d kick ass all over the place! I can’t WAIT to see your garden!!! Wait – THAT deserves an EXTRA exclamation point or two … !!

    Hey Chrisitina, don’t you know I make it a habit of walking around in your brain? If you pay very close attention, you’ll feel me bumping around…
    Over the years, I’ve planted so many – but the ones I love the most are E. wulfenii, E. x martinii, and E. ‘Blackbird’. But every time I plant a new one THAT becomes my favorite! I’m so promiscuous! And I KNOW you are going to create the DEFINITIVE Euphorbia post – you always hit it out of the park!

  23. ilse ackermann says:

    I’ve got Euphorbia’s, oleanders, brugmansia… name it. I like to think my daughters aren’t silly enough to go munching on mommy’s garden!

  24. Holy moly – I’d hope no passers by would eat/cut/pick my plants/put them in their eyes. Whether or not it’s true that euphorbias cause problems, there are plenty of other poisonous plants in gardens. At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, get off my lawn. (of course there is no lawn, but still).

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