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Euphorbia - careful as you go!

  • Euphorbia - careful as you go!

I'm not a big fan of Euphorbia as a genus: I find most of them quite untidy in growth, and dull in colour. I also dislike them, as a gardener, because of that evil white milky sap: it's sticky, it ruins your clothes, and for many of us it causes an allergic reaction if you get it on your skin. Apparently if you get it in your eyes it means a trip to the hospital, so for goodness sake, don't get it in your eyes!

At this time of year, a lot of us will be cutting down the herbaceous plants, and many of the Euphorbia will need to be cut back as well, and because of that sap, it's well worth taking a bit of extra care when working with them.

For a start, always wear gloves. Always! And preferably long sleeves, just to make sure you don't get the sap on your skin.

With many perennials, it's usually easier to cut them in two stages, removing the tips, with the old flowers and seeds, to go on the bonfire heap, and then cutting the stems right down, with that material going onto the compost heap.

But not with Euphorbia! As soon as you cut or break a stem, that white sap starts to ooze out, so only cut once, and watch out for the cut stems in your hand dripping on you.

My method is to approach the plant (cautiously!) from one side, and gently gather up all the stems with one arm. Then I lean over and cut the first few stems as low as I possibly can, really close to ground level. The next few stems have to be cut very slightly higher, otherwise you find your hand is brushing across the stumps of the first ones, which nicely covers you in sap. So by the time I've done the entire clump, it has a gently shelving appearance.

As I cut, I lay the cut stems over to one side - it's no use picking them up, as they will drip everywhere, and it's less messy to pick them up all in one bundle, then shove them straight in the wheelbarrow and off to the bonfire heap with them.

No matter how careful I am, I always end up with some sap on my gloves, so it's a good idea to wipe your gloved hands on the grass a couple of times, to get it all off. Otherwise you transfer it to your clothes, your legs, your hair.... you get the picture.

The photos above show a barrow-load of Euphorbia on their way to the bonfire heap: and yes, all those white splodges are droplets of sap - so always stack them in the wheelbarrow with the cut ends away from yourself!

Comments (3)

  1. Grower

    Rob Johnson, Green & Furry pet and garden care

    The latex is such a problem isn't it. I am always warning clients off euphorbias, only last week someone started pulling at a clump with bare hands, I soon sent them in to wash them, and yes I know what it is like for the sap , even a trace to get too near the eyes. I remember when I was about 14, wearing big sunglasses for a week or so having turned into some kind of alien with severe swelling around the eyes and nose after collecting seed from a myrsinites, and yes, washed my hands, so I thought, anyway lesson learned, the hard way and early,always wear gloves. Apart from that I do like them, I have tried dendroides last year with great success. This one is the shrub from dry hillsides on the Mediterranean, but seems happy here in wet Wales. It flowers early, covered in first green , then bright yellow flowers, quite a sight, though it is winter growing, so is summer deciduous, a bit scruffy in summer but well worth a try as it seeds freely as well.

  2. Grower

    Julian Bishop

    Try Euphorbia mellifera (in a pot) - it's pretty well-behaved, has lovely fragrant flowers and looks good (and neat!) all year round. Slightly tender though (I've kept them outside for 10 years)

  3. Grower

    Rob Johnson, Green & Furry pet and garden care

    I have this one in the ground in the front. It was a seedling from Singleton Park , Swansea where they grow like doesn't mind being inland a bit, and I had it up in Cumbria, but it was mild enough to grow large echiums there. And it grew 8 ft or more then got cut down to the ground whenever the wind blew the wrong direction in winter. Nice plant though always came back in the spring. We were by the sea , cumbria is a county of great contrasts in many ways.

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