A gardener’s first tendency when you mention Euphorbias might evoke visions of Poinsettias, Crown of Thorns or an old favorite, Cushion Spurge. The family of Euphorbias I'm passionate about is commonly known as 'Shrubby Spurges'. With recent developments in breeding efforts, these plants have attained new heights and all I can say is WOW! The new palette of colors and textures now available offers enticing selections to lure you in…and I’m hooked!
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 25, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Shrubby Spurges are members of the vast family of Euphorbiaceae and received their common name from the fact that their poisonous sap was once used for its purgative qualities. The milky, white sap that bleeds from the plant when the stems are cut or wounded may cause a serious rash for those with sensitive skin or latex allergies, so always use caution when handling these plants.
These Spurges are outstanding choices for the landscape. Their only requirement is excellent drainage. They even tolerate dry, poor soils. Light requirements vary, most will perform admirably in full sun or partial shade. There are a few Euphorbias such as wood spurge, (Euphorbia amygdaloides) which actually prefer deep shade and create excellent groundcovers. Little, if any, maintenance is necessary with Euphorbias. If the plants become 'leggy', a hard pruning (cutting to within 3 to 6 inches from the ground) will result in a much denser, tightly branched, symmetrical plant and can be done any time of the year.
We’ve had several hardy Euphorbias in our gardens over the years and I've always been fond of those with a 'shrubby' form and especially impressed with their vigorous habit. New cultivars now provide more choices for our gardens and I am rapidly developing an uncontrollable desire to plant more!
A recent expansion in one of our gardens was pleading for plants that could quickly fill this area. I was anxious to create a border that would give an immediate impression of a mature, well-established planting. Okay, so I'm not the most patient gardener! I was also looking for plants with evergreen foliage to provide some interest in the garden over the long winter. Not too much to ask for, right?
After a vigilant search to locate plants that might meet my high expectations, Euphorbias seemed a perfect solution! Late last fall, I dedicated an area for them and commenced planting.
I wasn't disappointed; by late spring I was rewarded with a stunning display of handsome foliage.
The arrival of their unique floral display of peculiar 'blooms' in spring and continuing through early summer created yet another attractive highlight in the gardens.
But wait there's more!! As the season progressed, the arrival of frosty temperatures sets the stage for their final performance of the season as their evergreen foliage develops dramatic changes. With each passing day the colors continue to intensify and by December they absolutely glow in the garden! These plants will surely provide never-ending gratification for me in the garden over the long winter.
I'm a satisfied gardener - Euphorbias were an outstanding choice for this garden!
The wonderful opportunities these plants offer for the landscape soon had me searching for more.
Did I say "landscape"? You can't stop me there! Designing and creating container plants this year had my mind racing in pursuit of unique combinations. Two exceptional Euphorbia introductions this past year, 'Blackbird' and 'Helena's Blush' had already been planted in the gardens, but wouldn't they look terrific in containers as well? I was thrilled with the dark purple, almost black foliage of 'Blackbird'. Combined with the gorgeous, creamy yellow and green variegated foliage of 'Helena's Blush', the two made delightful companions in a container by our front entry. An added bonus - the flowers of 'Helena's Blush' are variegated as well!
Another member of the Euphorbia family I've found difficult to resist is Euphorbia cotinifolia (Zone 9). This species isn't hardy for our Zone 6 gardens, however it makes a fantastic container plant! I've been successful for three years, bringing the plant inside when the temperatures begin to fall below freezing. Its tremendous growth demanded a larger pot this year, and the shrubby habit was begging for a disguise to conceal its "bare legs." I couldn't refrain from using 'Helena's Blush' once again - the striking variegated foliage was a perfect companion to complement the glowing burgundy color of this Euphorbia.
With the onset of winter, my gardening endeavors have ended this year. Nevertheless, I'm preparing for the ambush of new cultivars which will be available in the spring. Another planting frenzy is in the works with numerous choices to satisfy my craving for more Euphorbias in the garden.
Gardening Guru Dan Hinkley, says “you can’t have too many euphorbs” and I enthusiastically agree!
What more could this crazed Euphorbia enthusiast ask for? What else? More Euphorbias! If my "untamed passion" has persuaded you to add Euphorbias to your garden, take a look at a few of the exciting new selections I'll be considering for planting in the gardens in 2008!
Euphorbia polychroma 'Bonfire' One of my mother's favorite plants has always been Cushion Spurge (Euphorbia polychroma). This new introduction from Blooms of Bressingham offers a new twist for an old favorite. Cushion Spurges typically develop excellent red foliage in the fall, however 'Bonfire's green foliage in spring rapidly changes to a deep burgundy red color and "smolders" all summer long! Hardy to at least Zone 5.
Euphorbia 'Excalibur' Although not a "new" introduction, this Euphorbia from Plant Haven needs to be added to our collection. 'Excalibur' has unique gray-green foliage with a pronounced white midrib. Long lasting flowers of lemon yellow with contrasting coral colored stems. Hardy to at least Zone 5.
Euphorbia 'Glacier Blue' A 2008 introduction from Plant Haven with fantastic variegated foliage! Icy blue-gray leaves with frosted edges of cream. Almost sounds good enough to eat, doesn't it? The breeder reports that 'Glacier Blue' is more robust than other variegated Euphorbias. Hardy to at least Zone 7.
Euphorbia 'Kalipso' An introduction in 2006 from Proven Winners with a dwarf, compact habit (8 to 12 inches) - perfect for containers! Long lasting flowers similar to Euphorbia x martinii. Hardy to at least Zone 6.
Euphorbia 'Shorty' A new introduction from Itsaul Plants, 'Shorty' has foliage of blue-green. Glowing rosy tips, similar to the bright red bracts of Euphorbia x martinii 'Rudolph', develop with the onset of colder weather. Another compact selection with strong mounding habit that works nicely planted in containers. Hardy to at least Zone 7.
Euphorbia 'Tiny Tim' Dwarf, tightly mounding habit with green and burgundy foliage. A miniature form of its parent, Euphorbia x martinii, with an extremely long blooming period. Compact, dome-shaped form works well for containers or planted in the border. Hardy to at least Zone 6.
Further information on other favorite Euphorbias can be found in PlantFiles:
My gardening journey began when I discovered perennials in the 80’s, prompting endless trips to the library to educate myself. In 1999, I left the dreary winters of Maine, moved to Virginia and fulfilled my dream of working with plants. Today, I’m a partner with my husband in the nursery he established in 1981. I’m known to test the limits of plants that “shouldn’t” grow in Zone 6. As a hopeless ‘Hortaholic’, I share the sentiment of Tony Avent, “I consider every plant hardy until I have killed it myself...at least three times”! I’m looking forward to sharing my gardening passion with everyone.