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Euphorbia: A dangerous ally

Euphorbia

Euphorbia are beautiful and dangerous.  If you understand them, they can be an asset to your garden.  If you don’t, you may find yourself in some major pain.

 

The enemy of my enemy is my friend:

  • Pocket gophers are a challenging foe.  However, there are a few groups of plants that gophers will not touch.  One of these is the Euphorbia genus.  As you might imagine, gophers keep their distance from this plant for good reason and the plants in his group need to be respected by us as well.  Therefore, the majority of this post will be a cautionary tale and some unsubstantiated advice on how to deal with Euphorbia’s menacing features.
euphorbia milii. Crown of thorns

Euphorbia milii. (AKA: Crown of thorns)

Euphorbia Species:

  • The Euphorbia species is a surprisingly diverse appearing group of plants.  The phenotypic expression ranges from looking like a columnar cactus to leafy thorny ground-cover.  Euphorbia are originally from “The Old World” which for the most part means that they are from Africa.
Euphorbia ingens

Euphorbia ingens, (its not a cactus)

Euphorbia encounter:

  • My first encounter with Euphorbia occurred when I was cutting some plants around the yard.  My final task for that evening was to take some cuttings from a beautiful bush like succulent growing in a far corner of my yard.  The plant had long pencil like branches with no leaves.  It seemed interesting and harmless enough so I cut a branch to grow the cutting.
  • Not a good idea. 
  • Cutting a large branch was easy enough; however, I was surprised by the large amount of milky sap that seemed to jet out of the plant as if it was under pressure.  This Elmer’s glue like sap prayed accost my arm and was particularly sticky.  I didn’t think too much about it at the time.  However, somewhere in my primitive mind, I remembered something about white sap being dangerous so I quickly and diligently washed it off.
Euphorbia tirucalli. Sticks on Fire

Euphorbia tirucalli. Sticks on Fire

Later that night:

  • At about 2am I awoke from sleep with the distinct sensation that my arm was on fire.  It felt like white hot fire.
  • Once I got my bearings and began to wake up, I realized that the house was quiet and there was no smoke.
  • However, the unnaturally intense burning pain persisted without explanation.  Then it dawned on me; the pain on my arm was in the same place where the sap had landed earlier.

 

Frantically:

  • My computer didn’t seem to start up fast enough as I was desperate for some answers.
  • Through the adrenalin, I identified the culprit plant as Euphorbia tirucalli.  (you-FOR-bee-uh teer-ooh-KAL-eye).
  • The plant also goes by many different common names: (Firestick Plants, Indian Tree Spurge, Naked Lady, Pencil Tree, Rubber-Hedge, Sticks on Fire or Milk Bush).

 

Treatment:

  • I found a variety of suggestions for immediate care.  However, the following general suggestions would probably work for many different types of toxic plant sap.
  • The best first step is to get the sap off of you as best as you can. The faster the better b/c Euphorbia sap dries fast and then it is harder to remove.
  • Removing Euphorbia sap is particularly difficult b/c it acts a bit like glue and dries clear.  Even when you think it is gone, trace invisible residue can cause major symptoms.
  • Therefore some sources recommend that you wash the area for at least 15 min… or in my experience more like > 30 min.
  • Soap, water and time.  Some people say milk works for some reason, but I didn’t try that.
  • But don’t take my advice.  If this happens to you see a medical professional.

 

Additional pearls of treatment information:

  • Don’t wash off the sap while over dirty dishes in the sink because it may then stick to your dishes.  You don’t want to ingest even a tiny amount of residue from this powerful toxin.
  • Discard anything that you think might have sap on it.  The sap can cause problems later even if you don’t see it.  Throw away whatever you used to clean yourself with when you are done.

 

  • IMPORTANT, if you are in the shower trying to wash off the sap be very careful.  Think about how the water drains off the area you are washing.  One could easily wash the sap residue to another, uhh… vulnerable place downstream on your body. You definitely don’t want to damage your extra sensitive body parts.

 

  • Overall, if you get the sap on your skin, or worst, in your eye or ingest it, you should see your doctor or go to the hospital ASAP… But please don’t drive yourself because the pain is very distracting-making it unsafe to drive. If the sap is in your eyes it can cause blindness (obviously not good while trying to drive either).

 

  • Benadryl may help with the redness but the main thing is to remove the sap.  Depending on how bad things are, your physician may give you additional medications such as anti-inflammatory steroids.

 

How bad is it?

  • As mentioned, the sap is the big problem and is extremely toxic.
  • It causes burns, and can cause blindness if it gets in the eyes.
  • I have also read some articles implicating the plant as a cause of an aggressive type of lymphoma. This cancer may in part be a result of ingesting the sap as part of folk “herbal remedies.”
  • More acutely, many people have died after a minimal amount of sap ingestion.
  • So beware, stay away, and keep it away from kids and animals.

 

Back to the gophers:

  • Because of my traumatic experience, euphorbia plants were once my least favorite group of plants.  However, I can forgive.  More importantly, I have figured out how to make this liability into an asset.

 

  • For example, there is a daunting slope on one side of my yard where little more than weeds grow.  Gophers have settled into this area and their digging has made the erosion problem rather severe.

 

  • So I thought about it a bit and the natural solution is Euphorbia.  Gophers won’t eat it and may even avoid the area where the roots grow.  The plants also thrive in the dry soil of a slope and I don’t have to worry about the sap because no one should be walking around on the slope.

 

Plant Care:

  • This plant grows very well in dry environments, often with no irrigation once established.
  • They are originally from Eastern and South Africa but they have adapted all over the world.

 

  • In some areas, such as Brazil, it is grown it as a fence. I can imagine that is very effective as a fence b/c no one wants to touch the thing twice. Some websites discuss how the plant can be trained and shaped. But that requires putting yourself in major danger.

 For a list of gopher resistant and nonresistant plants, check out my post from 8/28/13.

 

Here’s some additional euphorbia info that I found useful/interesting online:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euphorbia_tirucalli

http://www.nature.com/bjc/journal/v88/n10/full/6600929a.html

http://www.homegrownevolution.com/2010/04/least-favorite-plant-euphorbia.html

http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/duke_energy/euphorbia_tirucalli.html

http://plantsarethestrangestpeople.blogspot.com/2009/01/cigarette-smoking-man-euphorbia.html

 

About Thomas Osborne, MD

Dr. Osborne is a Harvard trained Radiologist and Neuroradiologist who loves to share his insight about medicine and gardening.

8 comments

  1. Gophers are the bane of my life and garden. But based on your experience, Euphorbia is even worse!
    I use wire mesh to encircle my plants and trees when planting and most of the time it works. Fingers crossed.

    • Thomas Osborne, MD

      Hey Sateesh
      I totally agree, wire mesh seems to be the best solution for me too.
      It may seem a bit out there, but I am considering getting an outdoor cat at the pound. However, I am hesitant considering the band of coyotes around here.
      I am also working on making a Barn Owl box. I hear that Barn Owls eat lots of gopher sized rodents a day.

      • Funny you should mention a cat Tom. When we moved to this lunar landscaped barren hillside, it was Gopher paradise and nothing grew but Rock, Clay and wild grass. I have now created a veritable Garden of Eden but it is galling to note that but for the gophers and squirrels, it would have been so much lusher. Anyway, about cats. There was a large wild cat that prowled our garden and initially I shooed it away. Then one day I saw a real life drama unfold before my eyes. A squirrel danced around my Sundial pottery chased by the wild cat. The dance reached its inevitable end after 5 minutes. So I allowed to cat to patrol my yard and it kept down some of the squirrels. I have also watched giant hawks/eagles circle overhead and swoop down to devour a squirrel. I also watch Harvey & Mathilda Mallard Ducks raise their ducklings each year and of course we are fortunate to have 5 Hummingbirds and tons of bees. So keep the cat, but dont feed it. Our wild cat looks svelte with the squirrels he devours. Maybe I should make a National Geographic movie sometime. LOL. Regards, Sateesh

        • Thomas Osborne, MD

          Sateesh; It sounds like we are living parallel gardening lives. I also had a hill side of weeds, clay and rock when I arrived at this property. I have spent most of my free time digging holes, creating terraces, building rock walls, carving pathways, and converting to drip lines. Many broken shovels and blisters later I am getting close to my goal.

          Your cat story cracked me up. A movie would be awesome.

  2. Firestick is a horrible plant. My neighbor planted it in a planter outside of my condo and my phone feel into the bush. I had a milky sap on my hand and then intense burning followed by swelling of my hand, arm and sharp pain in my spine and swelling of my joints. A few days later swelling of the back of my head- my brain! This a toxic plant.

    • Thomas Osborne, MD

      That is terrible Suzanne; so sorry to hear about your ordeal.
      Your brain too!?
      That is horrible.
      Totally agree; its a dangerous plant
      Thanks for the additional insight.
      Tom

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