Friday, February 24, 2012

Family favourites

When you look at families, it often amazes me how the various members are related but seem to be so very different. Now I am of course talking about plant families, although you can take the analogy further if you wish! This morning I was thinking about the spurges, all  various different members of Euphorbiaceae. Well  actually I was really concentrating on the genus Euphorbia.  Also within the family, there are some 300 other genera, including such diverse plants as the  food crop cassava and a highly poisonous Ricinus.  Now there's diversity for a start.

Manihot esculenta 'Variegata' - an ornamental cassava - my yard but sadly it died!

Ricinus growing wild in the Wash near Palm Springs

But just looking at the Euphorbias, we have both hardy and tender plants, shrubby plants, herbaceous perennials and succulents. The common name is spurge, which is said to date from the Middle Ages when the sap was used as a purgative. This sounds rather dubious as the sap is in fact highly irritant, causing painful skin disorders and even blindness if it comes into contact  with the eyes. There are stories of propagators in nurseries who have been taking cuttings and popped out for a quick visit to the boys room, only to become extremely uncomfortable somewhat later! The moral of the story is to always handle euphorbias with great care, using gloves and to wash any splashes of the white sap off your skin immediately. Out here in Palm Springs, there are a number of species that are common  landscape plants. Some of them are very succulent and can be easily confused with cacti.

Euphorbia tirucallii 'Sticks of Fire' and E. polygona 'Snowflake' plus an agave
Euphorbia millii
 
Euphorbia - not sure of the species - typical local landscape plant

One distinctly different  species that I have just planted in our yard here  is Euphorbia cotinidifolia which most people at a glance would easily confuse with the hardy shrub Cotinus,  commonly known as the smoke bush. In fact the name acknowledges the similarity between the two plants. Sadly its tender and inclined to be temperamental.

Euphorbia cotinifolia
Most of the succulent types come from South Africa and the two following pictures, courtesy of Flickr,  show the diversity of these plants and the amazing size that some can grow to.
Euphorbia ingens - South Africa

Euphorbia resinifera

Back home in the UK, hardy Euphorbias are valuable garden plants mostly for their yellowish bracts and some for their foliage. Some of the new variegated types have quite striking foliage. One of my own favourites is E. mellifera, an understated plant but with sweet honey scented flowers.

(Aside - when Philip first saw the plant below he commented 'That will be nice when it flowers!' Of course most Euphorbias have colourful bracts which mask the insignificant flowers. Philip - that's it! )

Euphorbia chracias subsp wulfenii - possibly 'Lambrook Gold'

Euphorbia mellifera and a variegated hybrid - forgotten its name!

Euphorbia 'Ascot Rainbow' - a new hybrid


Euphorbia - showing fasciation - not pretty but curious!
And finally what would Christmas be with poinsettias, yet another Euphorbia! And of course if you grow your own, you all know the trick in making them colour  - tell them a dirty story and they'll go red!

Euphorbia pulcherrima

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