By Kevin Mankey.
Favourite Families: EUPHORBIACEAE.
The question frequently pops up when you work in the nursery industry…”Do you have a favourite plant?” My answer would be not one individual favourite but more like a favourite family. The Euphorbias are one of the largest plant families with over two thousand members from all over the world. Some of the most interesting varieties come from the desert regions of South Africa, and the inhospitable island of Madagascar. Fortunately, in their wisdom our growers concentrate on producing only some of the best forms, otherwise there would be no room for anything else in the nursery!
Also known as spurge (from the old French word “espurge” meaning to purge which refers to the use of the sap as a purgative in olden times) the Euphorbia family is made up of annual and perennial plants, woody shrubs and trees. Their form ranges from feathery leaved ground covers, to lush woody stemmed flowering shrubs, to stark, sculptured trees which look almost alien in all but a desert landscape. There are even some which have developed thick fleshy stems which were once mistaken as cactus species although Euphorbias are not in any way related to cacti.
You may have guessed by now that Euphorbias are some of the toughest garden shrubs available, being hardy to frost and long periods of dryness. They are also coastal tolerant and will thrive even in poor quality soils as long as there is reasonably good drainage. They adapt very well to our Melbourne climate with its extremes of long hot summers and cold winters.
One of the most recognizable species is the ever popular Christmas poinsettia E. pulcherrima with its traditional red bracts (white and pink forms now exist) which are used as table decorations at Christmas time. However, the majority of varieties currently being grown are popular with garden designers and enthusiasts due to their compact bushy form and their diverse foliage colours ranging from grey greens, to purple, to limey- gold, and even white splashed variegated foliage. As for flowers, the majority of Euphorbias carry clusters of sulphur yellow to russet coloured composite flower heads mainly during the latter part of winter and on into spring.
What I like best about them is that they are adaptable to so many garden styles from cottage to traditional to contemporary and even arid. Most of the varieties currently on the market grow to less than one meter high by one meter wide so they will fit almost any space in any garden. Like many structural plants they work really well in group plantings where they have high visual impact and bring a brilliant textural element to a garden design.
One word of caution with this family of plants is that they all exude a sticky milky sap when cut which is toxic if ingested and can be an irritant to the skin and eyes. The simple precaution of wearing gloves and avoiding rubbing the eyes when handling them is recommended. With this in mind the euphorbia family is well worth consideration for a range of garden situations. Pictured are some of the varieties currently on offer in the nursery along with a few collectable varieties which may be slightly harder to find. Note the diversity of forms shapes and foliage colours which is what makes Euphorbia a fascinating and versatile family of plants. Drop in soon and feel free to ask our recommendations for a Euphorbia to suit your garden.