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Euphorbia tirucalli

Family: Euphorbiaceae (Euphorbia family)

Common names: Firesticks, Pencil Tree (E); Kraalmelkbos (A);

Native to: Southern Africa
Shrub, Succulent, Tree

Euphorbia tirucalli

DECIDUOUS

FULL SUN

FROST SENSITIVE

LOW WATER REQUIREMENTS

MEDIUM WATER REQUIREMENTS

MEDIUM GROWER

ATTRACTS INSECTS

FLOWER COLOUR:

AVERAGE SIZE:

3m x 2m

MAXIMUM SIZE:

5m x 2m
FLOWERING TIME:
J F M A M J J A S O N D
FRUITING TIME:
J F M A M J J A S O N D

Euphorbia tirucalli

DESCRIPTION

A small, succulent with several branches. It may a many grow into a small tree (3-5m tall), but is often a medium shrub, depending on the growing conditions. The bark on old specimens is grey and rough with longitudinal scars. The branches are cylindrical, smooth and glabrous-green, 5-8 mm in diameter, forming brush-like masses that are the best known feature of this species. Plants are without spines and contain large quantities of toxic latex which is freely exuded by the twigs and branchlets at the slightest injury. The leaves are rarely seen as they are tiny and only present on the plant for a short period. The thin twigs are pendant, pale green and occur opposite each other, alternate or in groups on the branchlets which gives a rather untidy and rounded appearance to the crowns.  The tiny yellow flowers are easily overlooked on the tips of the branches.  It bears tiny fruits which split whilst on the tree to release small black seeds.

WILDLIFE & ECOLOGICAL BENEFITS
Euphorbia tirucalli produces yellowish flowers that attract butterflies, bees and other insects.
WATER REQUIREMENTS
Water moderately
MAINTENANCE
Low maintenance
LANDSCAPING USES
These beautiful trees are best positioned in open, full sun positions on rocky situations such as a rock garden, embankment or gravelly slopes. It can be combined with water-wise plants such as aloes to create a stunning effect. They may also be grown as a hedge.
GARDEN THEMES
Bushveld, Country, Formal, Rockery, Succulent
FLOWERS
Almost inconspicuous yellow flowers are borne on the tips of the branches.
FOLIAGE
The plant only bears leaves for a short duration of summer, so the small and slender (up to 12×1.5mm) leaves are rarely seen as they fall very early.
BARK
The bark on old specimens is grey and rough with longitudinal dents and ridges that break up into small fragments. It is often marked with conspicuous, small protuberances, such as a bulge, knob, or swelling, on the bark, and occasionally black, rough, crosswise bands.
FRUIT
The fruit are pale green with a pink tinge, tripartite capsules, about 12mm in diameter, and covered with soft hairs. The capsules dehisce while still on the tree.
PESTS & DISEASES
Seldom attacked by pests and diseases.
CULTIVATION
Euphorbia tirucalli grows moderately fast and thrives in moderate to warm climates. It does not cope with extreme cold. Plants can easily be cultivated by means of seeds, cuttings or truncheons. Fresh seeds must be sown in late summer from February to March and kept in a warm, moist area. Plants prefer to have their ‘feet’ dry especially in winter. Young plants grow relatively fast and will benefit from liquid fertilizers and well-composted, well-drained soils.
CAUTION
The milky latex of this plant is toxic, and can cause skin irritation, redness and a burning sensation. Contact with the eyes can cause blindness. If swallowed, it may cause the throat to constrict and lead to asphyxiation.

16 Responses

  1. Hi David

    Thanks for visiting Plantbook.

    Euphorbia tirucalli is naturally found in many regions of South Africa and as far as I’m aware, has not been identified as a problem plant. However, it seems like your question may be regarding a specific geographic location so you may need to do a more specific site survey to see whether it is appropriate and will not compete with existing vegetation if introduced.

    Flourish!
    Glenice

  2. Is Euphorbia tirucalli naturally found in South Africa?
    Is it a problem plant that would need to be eradicated or would in be permitted in conservation areas or wildlife reserves in the garden? Specifically, from a government perspective, is it a plant that would need to be eradicated as a problem plant?

  3. Hi Caroline

    Thanks for visiting Plantbook.

    Based on our observations in Gauteng, we’ve found that the succulents with varying tones like Euphorbia tirucalli tend to have more dramatic changes in colour when they are watered less.

    The colour change is most dramatic in winter when there’s little or no rainfall in the Highveld. Indigenous plants tend to thrive best in a garden setting when the watering conditions match their natural environment.

    I’m not sure that iron will help. It’s normally used to encourage greener foliage. Try reducing your watering, particularly in winter.

    Flourish!
    Glenice

  4. Is there any way to increase the red/pink color of euphorbia tirucalli, perhaps by adding iron?

  5. Hi Sarah

    Thanks for visiting Plantbook.

    Wow, that must be an awesome specimen. Please send us a picture if possible.

    It’s always difficult to predict how a plant reacts to a severe hacking, but as the Euphorbia tirucalli is highly resilient, it tends to recover from even a harsh pruning. The root system is generally non-aggressive, depending on the growing conditions, so is unlikely to cause damage to the driveway.

    Flourish!
    Glenice

  6. Hi! I have a giant 80 year old Euphorbia tirucalli tree with an enormous trunk. The greenery was recently hacked up by my neighbor because it was overhanging their property.

    The tree is right next to their driveway. I’m concerned because of so much cutting of the greenery that the root system might suddenly grow wildly and do damage to their driveway.

    What is the root system of this tree like, when it gets to be a giant tree and is cut back tremendously all at once? Are the roots invasive and large, or is it (hopefully) more of a taproot system?

    The trunk is probably 2 feet wide, so we are talking a BIG tree, about 20 feet high.

  7. Hi Yvonne

    Thanks for visiting Plantbook.

    I would definitely avoid planting this in a school garden. Your sources are correct. The milky latex can cause skin irritations and vision disturbances.

    Flourish!
    Glenice

  8. I have been told that the juice of this plant causes skin to burn, blindness and that if swallowed can cause damage that cannot be medicated. Is this true? Is it safe to be planted in a school garden?

  9. Hi Jade

    As far as I’m aware, the root system isn’t invasive. However, I’d recommend planting them at least 50cm from the wall to avoid excessive pressure against the wall.

    Flourish!
    Glenice

  10. Hi, I am thinking of planting a series of fire sticks against our boundary wall. We are on a hill so the other side of the wall is substantially lower than inside the wall as a result I need to be careful about invasive root systems. Does the fire stick plant have invasive root systems?

  11. Hi Tobie

    Thanks for visiting Plantbook.

    Yes, they can be trimmed into a ‘hedge’. Please wear protective clothing and eyewear when handling it as the milky latex is toxic and tends to splash out when the plant is cut back. If it gets into your eyes, it can cause temporary blindness. Contact with skin also burns.

    Flourish!
    Glenice

  12. I have four that is about 1 meter high. Can it been cut back and I want it to cover a wall that does not look good. Thanks

  13. Hi Melissa

    They can safely be planted 1.5m from the wall without affecting the structure.

    Because of the toxic nature of the plants, avoid planting them in areas accessible to children.

    Flourish!
    Glenice

  14. I have two Euphorbia Tiriculli plants that I would like to plant next to a perimeter wall in a complex. They are medium in size. My question is this: how aggressive are the root systems and would it affect the wall in time? If so, how far away from the walls should they be planted? We live in Pretoria East with the plants to be planted in a sunny, rocky part of the garden. Thanking you in advance.

  15. Hi Craig
    You raise a valid point.
    The Euphorbia tirucalli plants found in the KZN area are probably a cultivar since the plant is not naturally found in this region. The plants found growing in the wild prefer a hotter and less humid climate, particularly in the Limpopo Province and southern areas of Zimbabwe. Most purists will not accept a cultivar as “indigenous”. Cultivars, however, have been specially bred, with improvements so that they can tolerate various climatic conditions, hence its occurrence and use in so many KZN gardens. So, if you’re creating an endemic, indigenous garden in KZN, this plant does not check all the boxes.

  16. There has recently been concern raised over the origin of this species, stating that the Firestick is a cultivar and therefore cannot be planted in an endemic, indigenous garden in KZN, South Africa. Is this correct?

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