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Plant Highlight: Euphorbia esculenta

April 2013

Euphorbia is a large and diverse genus, with many non-succulent species as well as succulent ones. Different groups within the genus look so dissimilar that it is hard to imagine they even belong to the same family, let alone the same genus, yet the flower structure shows that they do indeed belong together. One fascinating group is known as the medusoid euphorbias, all coming from southern Africa. They are characterized by having a central head out of which come many cylindrical arms, reminiscent of Medusa of Greek mythology with her head of snakes. One of these is Euphorbia esculenta.

Euphorbia esculenta comes from the south-central part of South Africa, in an inland area which gets occasional freezes in winter. It is able to make it through our winters at the Ruth Bancroft Garden without injury, and has rewarded us by spontaneously re-seeding in the garden.

Euphorbia esculenta is spring-blooming, usually beginning in early April. Its cyathia, the cup-like structures holding the flowers, are clustered at the ends of the branches. They resemble little tufts of cotton candy with the greenish-yellow stigmas, and the anthers with their yellow pollen, emerging from the wool.

After the flowers are pollinated, they develop pea-sized rounded shiny-green fruits bearing little tan or brown seeds. These are ejected explosively when the fruits ripen, so the seedlings can come up some distance away.