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Plant review: Some good Euphorbias

by Chani West-Foyle, Marketing Associate on December 27, 2010

in Gardening

Like a dashing, eccentric relative, euphorbias are odd but appealing. Well, at least the good ones are. The bad ones — and there are many — are among the foulest weeds in existence. You’ll even find some dastardly characters (I’m looking at you, Euphorbia cyparissias) in otherwise trustworthy nursery catalogs. Beware.

But let’s get back to the good ones. Living in Portland, I’m able to grow some relatively tender species, so bear with me, you cold-zoners — I won’t neglect you.

Euphorbia rigida (Zone #8) is a fascinating, snaky creature that looks as though it was plucked from the ocean bed. Its thick, sinuous stems are clad with triangular, blue-green, rather pointy leaves, and a mass of these tentacular growths (which get to be about a yard across and eighteen inches high) is guaranteed to ratchet up the drama in your garden. Ideally, it should be allowed to cascade down a wall, but it you lack such features, put it at the front of the border. It bears the usual shocking-chartreuse flowers in early spring. On some plants, the bracts turn bright red at the end of the bloom period—a stunning sight. Before new growth begins in late winter, it’s a good idea to remove the old flowering stems, to keep down the straggle factor. (Be careful: all euphorbias, when cut, bleed a milky white sap that can cause possibly severe skin and eye irritation. Plus, they’re poisonous. Wear gloves and don’t eat them.) A similar plant, Euphorbia myrsinites, has leaves that are more overlapping and is hardier (to Zone #5), but it has become a pest in some parts of the country and so is best shunned. Truth to tell, Euphorbia rigida will seed itself a bit, but not in a weedy way. One other good thing: it’s highly drought tolerant.

Euphorbia rigida (foreground), showing off its crimson bracts next to Penstemon heterophyllus. Photo: Tom Fischer.

Much more understated but still pleasant, glaucous-leaved, and thoroughly drought-tolerant is Euphorbia nicaeensis (Zone #7). It blooms later than E. rigida and thus makes an excellent companion for early-summer flowers. Again, you’ll notice some mild self-seeding but no attempt at imperial conquest. This one gets to be about a foot to eighteen inches across and six inches high.

Euphorbia nicaeensis with blue-flowered Linum lewisii and silver-leaved Brachyglottis ‘Otari Cloud’. Photo: Tom Fischer.

But those of you in colder parts of the country need not despair — there are some great hardy euphorbias. One of the best is E. polychroma, hardy to Zone #4. It’s also one of the brightest perennials the spring garden can boast. It makes a nice, neat clump about a foot and a half tall and wide, and if you have the good sense to plant it near some scarlet tulips (preferably a species like the charming Tulipa linifolia), the result will be so stimulating you’ll practically need a sedative.

Caption: Euphorbia polychroma. Photo: H. Zell/Wikimedia Commons.

“Elegant” is the only word for Euphorbia palustris (Zone #5), a native of central Europe that makes an imposing clump three feet tall and wide. Although palustris means “marsh-dwelling,” it will put up with a bit of dryness in the garden. Just don’t push your luck. It blooms from late spring into early summer, and you should plant it with deep blue and purple Siberian irises. Throw in some lady’s-mantle (Alchemilla mollis — more chartreuse!) and you’ll inspire envy in the snootiest plant snob you know.

By the way, the common name for the euphorbia clan is spurge, which sounds dreadful.

Euphorbia palustris. Photo: Petr Filippov/Wikimedia Commons.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Gardening Express December 27, 2010 at 11:13 am

like that combination of linum, bratchyglottis and euphorbia in your picture above. Chris – Gardening Express

2 Zaiya July 10, 2011 at 8:19 am

Holy ciocnse data batman. Lol!

3 vjivdtwmd July 13, 2011 at 2:17 am

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