Plant Profiles: Euphorbia
Drawing by Rene Eisenbart
Perennial, blooms late winter through spring 15 inches to 4 feet
Full sun (with exceptions), extremely well-drained soil
Soggy soil; some species resent the approach of 0° F
Some euphorbias are extremely aggressive (e.g. E. cyparissia, the cypress spurge), choose wisely; also, because euphorbia's milky sap is toxic, gardeners with sensitive skin should wear gloves; all who handle the plant should take care not to rub their eyes
Eureka, euphoria, Euphorbia! If ever there was a genus to celebrate, this one's it. Euphorbia's more than just part of the plant family Euphorbiaceae, it's part of the family of man.
It was known in Julius Caesar's Rome, it was known to the Oubangu tribes of the Congo, and it shows up annually on the display aisles of your nearest Safeway. What? Ever heard of a poinsettia? It's Euphorbia pulcherrima! I'm telling you, where there's life, there's euphorbia.
Of course, you'd have to be a euphorbiologist to know when you were looking at one, because the genus comes in innumerable sizes and forms. The Romans' euphorbia was a Mediterranean succulent, and the Oubangus' was a tall spiny shrub. Travel the tropics of East Africa, and you'll find tree forms of euphorbia ninety feet high.
Sadly, by comparison, the range of euphorbs that will work in our gardens is miniscule. We've only got a few hundred really good ones from which to choose. Don't panic. I'm limiting myself to just five.
If you've ever complained that ground covers for dry shade lacked enthusiasm, meet the wood spurge Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae. It has rounded, glossy, dark-green leaves that make a tight, spreading fifteen-inch mound, pristine and buoyant through winter. Even in the driest, deepest shade, you can count on cheery panicles of yellow flowers high above the foliage in early spring.
About that same time, in the sunnier part of the garden, E. dulcis 'Chameleon' is just waking up, looking as rich as chocolate pudding in contrast to April's veggie-green. The flavor lasts for months, and can be had again by cutting the plant back in early summer (or right after flowering to keep this notorious self-seeder in check). My guess is you've seen - and wanted - this addictive plant, which now tops the charts among purple-leaved perennials. Not half bad for a rogue picked up in a shady French ditch.
The species E. characias comes in two sun-loving subspecies: var. characias and wulfenii (hey, I'm just the messenger). They share a few general characteristics: three- to five-foot arresting architecture with long arching stems, bluish-green leaves, and bold yellow flower heads. Both have many named varieties, each with slightly different attributes, including the more dwarf 'Humpty Dumpty', the bluer 'Jade Dragon', and the lusciously upholstered 'Portuguese Velvet', my favorite 'phorb for foliage.
Among the several orange-red-flowered species in the family, I'd recommend E. griffithii 'Dixter', which never seems to have a dull moment: purple-orange shoots, red stems, bronzed foliage, and burnt apricot-orange flowers. At its best in richer soil, this Christopher Lloyd selection is typically euphorbic and may decide it needs more of the bed. But as is the case with all the plants I mentioned, you can keep 'Dixter' in check by yanking out unwanted plants as soon as they emerge.
Okay, so I snuck in more than five. But I'll bet you can't grow just one.