Euphorbia tirucalli

Botanical name

Euphorbia tirucalli

Other names

Rubber hedge euphorbia; Indian tree spurge; pencil tree; kraalnaboom (Afrikaans); aveloz (in Brazil)

Family

Euphorbiaceae

Dimensions

A small, multiple branched, dioecious, succulent tree of about 5 m in height, although it sometimes reaches double that height

Description of stem

The younger stems are smooth, erect, cylindric, dense and green, becoming light grey to brown, rough and longitudinally fissured only in the lower, thick parts of mature plants; they are the dominant feature in the appearance of the plant; the slightest damage to the stems, or any other part of the plant, causes a poisonous white latex to emerge

Description of leaves

Leaves are usually absent or inconspicuous and falling early

Description of flowers

Inconspicuous yellow bracts hide the flowers at the apex of the upper branches (or axillary) in spring and summer; plants are dioecious

Desciption of seed/fruit

A small (about 8 mm in diameter), pink coloured and finely hairy, three-lobed,  but appearing globose capsule, appearing in summer

Description of roots

 

Variation

There is a variation with orange to yellow stem tips marketed by nurseries

Propagation and cultivation

Young plants are easily transplanted, also grown from seed or cuttings which must be allowed to dry out before planting

Tolerances

Grows strongly in dry areas in a variety of soil types; cannot withstand very low temperatures; salt tolerant, can be planted near a beachfront

Uses

Traditionally a hedge plant or living fence post for animals and protecting living areas; once thought to be a promising source of rubber and even resin and gasoline, leaving large abandoned plantations still to be seen in places in Africa, like the Rift Valley in Kenya, but tried in several places globally, so far with no success (Melvin Calvin, 1976 quoted in www.hort.purdue.edu); also been harvested for charcoal; the toxic latex has been used as an insect repellent and a fish poison by dropping a severely bruised branch from which latex is exuding into the water near the fishes; it is regarded as a cure for impotence by some traditional populations, whilst elsewhere it has been used in treating syphilis, haemorrhoids and leprosy; experimentation regarding the treatment of cancer has been conducted

Ecological rarity

Common in a large part of Africa and thriving in harsh conditions, seeding itself widely in many parts of its distribution range

Pests and diseases

 

Other

The latex can cause skin irritation, even dermatitis; it also causes temporary blindness and severely painful eye infection; Euphorbus was a first century AD physician to the king of Mauritania who used some Euphorbia plants in his medicines; tirucalli is a place in India where E. tirucalli was reportedly already in use in the time of Linnaeus in 1753 when his main taxonomic work was published; a comment exists according to which Burkitt's lymphoma is triggered in carriers of the Epstein-Barr virus by the E. tirucalli latex, causing tumours: i.e. avoid contact with this latex! (http://davesgarden.com)

Location

Widely distributed in arid, tropical thorn to moist forest regions in Africa; in summer rainfall wooded areas of Southern Africa

Distribution (SA provinces)

Eastern Cape; Kwazulu-Natal; Mpumalanga; Limpopo

Country

South Africa; Swaziland; Mozambique; Zimbabwe; Zambia; Malawi; Tanzania; Kenya; Uganda; Ethiopia (according to some records this plant is so widely spread and naturalised that its real origin is unknown)

 

 

Category: Euphorbias
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