Euphorbia characias bright yellow bracts

A large family of strikingly architectural plants, grown for their colourful bracts and bright foliage. There are more than 1000 varying species, the features of which are so diverse it is difficult to provide a generalized description.

Most forms have attractive shape, form and texture. The foliage looks good all year round, although the stems are at their best from early summer onwards, when topped with clusters of tiny flowers and showy bracts.

Family: Euphorbiaceae
Botanical Name: Euphorbia
Common Names: spurge, milkweed

Foliage: Evergreen or deciduous, narrow lance-shaped leaves. The leaves can be highly colourful and/or variegated.

Flowers: Small insignificant flowers emerge from within showy yellow, green-yellow or orange-red bracts.

Flowering Period: From spring to autumn (depending on variety).

Soil: Moist but well-drained, light open soil (chalk, sand or loam). Any pH. Avoid waterlogged conditions.

Conditions: Best in full sun. Grow in an east, west or south facing aspect, in a sheltered position.

Habit: Bushy or low growing, spreading.

Type: Annuals, biennials, herbaceous perennials, succulents and sub-shrubs.

Origin: Southern Europe and Africa

Hardiness: Most of the herbaceous species are fully hardy throughout the UK. The shrubby forms are more tender, so best grown in a warm greenhouse in colder regions.

Toxicity: All parts are highly toxic by ingestion. The milky sap can irritate skin and eyes.

Planting and Growing Euphorbia

An easy to grow plant with good drought resistance and tolerance of poor soils. Plant out in the autumn or spring, in a sunny position, in a very well drained soil. Plant shrubby types in spring and protect from cold winds until established. Most types prefer full sun, but evergreens will tolerate some light shade.

The taller forms are useful as border plants. Spurges are noted for their colourful bracts and bright foliage, which mix well with other plants. Perfect for sloping sites or raised borders. Tolerant of both chalk and alkaline conditions.

Tall stemmed forms are loved by flower arrangers. When cutting it is best to stem the flow of sap by dipping the cut ends in very hot water.

Taking Care of Euphorbia

Needs very little care and attention if the growing conditions are good. If they are not doing well, try growing them in another area of the garden.

Pruning Euphorbia

Wear gloves and other protective clothing when handling, as most species produce a milky sap that can irritate sensitive skins.

Evergreen forms may need trimming in spring. Remove any reverted shoots on variegated forms.

Dead head and cut down old stems of sub-shrubs once the foliage deteriorates. This will allow fresh young shoots to develop.

Pests and Diseases

Prone to powdery mildew and grey mould (botrytis), also root and stem rots in wet conditions.

Can be affected by aphids, black fly, caterpillars and scale insects.

Propagating Euphorbia

Sow seed of species under glass in March for planting out in May.

Take short basal cuttings of herbaceous and sub shrub species in spring. Dip cut surfaces in dry sand or soot to seal and prevent sap from oozing.

Divide roots of perennials forms in autumn.

Popular Varieties of Euphorbia Grown in the UK

A wide and diverse range of species are available, suitable for various garden situations, from border plants to rockery and ground cover.

Low Growing

Euphorbia myrsinites is a low growing evergreen perennial with trailing stems, covered with fleshy grey-blue, pointed leaves, tipped by yellowish green flowers in spring. Height to 6in (15cm), spread 1ft (30cm) or more.

Euphorbia pulcherrima 'Poinsettia' is a popular tender shrubby spurge, widely available as a houseplant in the winter. Distinctive brilliant-red bracts surround the small yellow flowers. White and pink forms are also available.

Medium Height

Euphorbia griffithi is a herbaceous perennial with reddish stems and dark-green leaves with red veins. Flowers in May and June. The popular cultivar 'Fireglow' bears flame-coloured bracts in late spring and early summer. Height to 2.5ft (75cm).

Euphorbia epithymoides (polychroma) is an evergreen perennial with mid-green leaves and sulphur-yellow flowers and bracts, in April and May. Turning reddish in autumn. Height and spread to 18in (45cm).

Euphorbia marginata (snow-on-the-mountain, variegated spurge) is a bushy upright annual with pale green leaves. The leaves become edged and splashed with white as they mature. Excellent as cut flowers. Height to 2ft (60cm) or more, spread to about 1ft (30cm).

Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae is a fine evergreen spreading perennial with upright stems topped with whorls of green leaves. Loose heads of lime-green flowers and bracts are produces from March to June. Makes excellent ground cover. Shade tolerant. Height to 2ft (60cm, spread to 3ft (90cm).

Euphorbia palustris (marsh spurge) has yellow-orange foliage and bright yellow bracts in early to mid summer. Height to 3ft (90cm).

Taller Forms

Euphorbia characias is a vigorous, upright, evergreen shrub that produces column-shaped heads of pale yellow bracts, over grey-green foliage. A wide variety of cultivars are available, including 'Margery Fish' which has large heads of sulphur-yellow bracts; and 'wulfenii' which has yellow-green bracts. Height to 4ft (1.2m).

Euphorbia fulgens 'Scarlet Plume' is a lax tender evergreen shrub with colourful bright scarlet bracts. Protect from frost. Height to 5ft (1.5m).

Euphorbia sikkimensis is a very attractive form with mid-green leaves that are bright red when young. Yellow cupped bracts appear in summer. Height to 4.5ft (1.5m)