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Plant Highlight: Euphorbia caput-medusae

April 2007

Euphorbia is a very large and widespread genus, ranging from tiny plants up to stout-trunked trees.  Some kinds are pernicious weeds, while others are botanical treasures which are prized by collectors.  Amongst the desirable members of the genus, a considerable number are succulent.  One intriguing category of these is a group commonly called the medusoid euphorbias, which come from South Africa and adjacent countries.  The name comes from their resemblance to Medusa, with snake-like cylindrical arms emerging from a central head.  One of these in particular bears the Latin name of Euphorbia caput-medusae, the Medusa’s Head Euphorbia.

Euphorbia caput-medusae comes from near Cape Town on South Africa’s west coast.  Like other euphorbias, this species has an unusual floral structure called a cyathium, with a cup-like structure bearing the flower’s sexual parts, surrounded by a ring of five glands.  In the case of E. caput-medusae, the glands have fringe-like white appendages which give them an attractive and distinctive look.  Flowering occurs in early spring.

We have had Euphorbia caput-medusae planted out in the garden for many years, and it has grown into a sizeable clump.  It does not get any winter protection, and grows quite happily in all but the very coldest years.  Our two weeks of freezing weather this January did not harm it, although the more severe freeze of late 1990 was enough to cause damage.