After several years of below-average rainfall, we are all interested in plants with lower water needs.
I have found myself drawn to the chartreuse exuberance of Euphorbia characias, Euphorbia amygdaloides and Euphorbia x martini. These plants have multiple upright stems surrounded by numerous blue-green narrow leaves. Depending on the variety and the time of year, the stems can be yellow, green or even reddish. Height also depends upon the variety, ranging from about 1½ feet to several feet tall.
The plants could be grown for their form and foliage alone, but there is an extra benefit in the spring. Blossom spikes appear, covered with clusters of chartreuse, stop-you-in-your-tracks flowers. Well, technically, what we are admiring are not clusters of flowers, but clusters of cyathium, a fused bract around very small, blah flower structures. These “blooms” last for several months before finally drying out. These spikes should then be cut off at ground level.
These plants are truly striking but in contrast to some diva plants, these are easily worked into your garden landscape. In other words, they play well with others. The chartreuse clusters blend well with other colors. The full bloom clusters and dome-like form of the plant also contrast beautifully with the vertical elements of many other spring bloomers like iris and daffodils.
The Euphorbia genus is huge. Depending on which expert you consult, it has between 2,000 to 3,000 members. The genus is also very diverse; plant forms range from herbaceous to shrubby to cactus-like succulents.
The genus ranges from plants considered weeds, like prostrate and petty spurge, to one of our most prized holiday plants, the poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima.
Characteristics that plants in this genus share are the previously mentioned bloom structure, the cyathium and a particular kind of milky sap. The sap can be irritating to the skin, so gloves and perhaps long sleeves are suggested for pruning. Some members of the genus have sap that can be toxic to consume.
Perhaps because the sap is so irritating, the plants are deer and gopher resistant. Other attributes are low maintenance, drought tolerance and very few pests and diseases for the species E.characias, E. amygdaloides, and E. x martini. Most Euphorbia species require sun and soil with good drainage. Cold tolerance varies with the species.
Euphorbias have been increasing in popularity. They have been the darlings of designers at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show display gardens for the last several years. You can find many of the plants locally and other are just a mouse click away on the Internet. Explore and enjoy.
Karen Metz is a Master Gardener with the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Fairfield. If you have gardening questions, call the Master Gardener’s office at 784-1322.