The euphorbias are a very large family which includes both succulent and non-succulent type plants.

Plant of the Month

Euphorbia tirucalli – Pencil plant, Deer’s antler plant

The euphorbias are a very large family which includes both succulent and non-succulent type plants. 

It has over 2000 species which in general are found in temperate and hot regions of the globe.  Some of them grow like grasses, others like multi-stemmed shrubs whilst some reach tree proportions, many of them can be taken for cactus on a first glance. 

The ‘Euphorbus’ from whom they take their name lived in the 1st century and was doctor to King Juba of Mauritania. 

It is known that Euphorbus used the plants that now bear his name for their medicinal properties. 

The species name tirucalli comes from the region of Malabar in south India, and was given to this plant in 1753 by Linnaeus within his comprehensive classification  of plant names.

The Pencil Plant (Euphorbia tirucalli) is a multi-branching succulent. 

It is native to tropical regions of east and south Africa.  Outside of Africa it can be found in India, China, Indonesia and the Philippines and the fact that it is encountered in so many different countries, would seem to support the idea that it has long been known as a useful plant.

It can grow from 3 – 5 metres up to as high as 10.  The young trunk and branches are green but as they age they become grey and develop a rough-looking surface. 

The green branches are smooth, unblemished and cylindrical in form with tiny cylindrical leaves a maximum of 12 x 1.5mm in size. 

Leaves only stay on the plant for a short time after which it presents as a trunk and branches only.  For this reason it is sometimes known as the Naked English Lady plant. 

As the plant can photosynthesise via its green trunk and branches it actually has no need of leaves.

Almost insignificant small yellow tufted flowers open on the newest branches from April to June. 

One to two months after flowering, round fruits some 10 – 12mm in diameter appear attached to the branches by a short stem. 

Inside the fruits brown oval seeds are found.

The trunk and branches of this plant are filled with a white liquid which emerges when they are damaged in any way. 

This latex-like liquid is toxic and most people will have some form of allergic reaction to it.

In particular it is vital that the liquid not come into contact with eyes, mouth or nose.
The plant is ideal for arid conditions. 

It not only withstands drought well but also rejuvenates itself rapidly following long periods without water.  In the tropics it is often used as a hedging plant. 

Animals and birds are aware of its toxicity and leave it well alone.

The latex contained in euphorbia tirucalli is partially hard rubber and partially a resin, and it has no great value. 

There have been experiments to try and produce biodiesel from the substance and, for this reason, the plant is sometimes called the ‘Petrol Plant’.

It is a good plant for indoors, except where small children could come into contact with its toxic latex. 

In Mediterranean gardens it can be used in very sheltered conditions. 

It can be grown from seed or cuttings which root rapidly and can withstand drought, but will not survive where the temperature drops below 0 C. 

Any serious frost will kill this plant.