Euphorbia Euphoria!

What exactly IS a Euphorbia?  Chances are, even if you don’t think you know any Euphorbias, you do know at least one – the poinsettia.  Euphorbias belong to one of the largest plant families on the planet, and are found in tropical, subtropical, and temperate zones.  Euphorbias exist in the forms of shrubs, trees, herbaceous perennials, annuals, biennials, and succulents.  Many Euphorbias are deer and rabbit resistant.  Some require full sun, while others tolerate some shade.  Not all perennial Euphorbias are cold hardy, including the poinsettia, which makes up for its tender nature by producing such stunning blooms.  The red, pink, white or multicolored “petals” are actually large, sometimes recurved, bracts.  The flowers are the small greenish yellow stemmed cups with orangey-red stamens in the center of the bloom.

It would require volumes to adequately discuss all the various species, cultivars and variants of Euphorbia, to show how you can take advantage of their diverse features in a variety of striking and rewarding plantings, in warm, cool or neutral palettes.  The focus here is on the varieties shown in our photographs:  E. polychroma “Bonfire”, E. x martini “Ascot Rainbow”, and E. x martini “Tiny Tim”.  All three of these Euphorbias have garnered much acclaim in the gardening world.

Euphorbia "Ascot Rainbow" along a wall, beneath a Japanese Maple.

Euphorbia “Ascot Rainbow” along a wall, beneath a Japanese Maple.

Both E. polychroma and E. x martinii cultivars range up to 3’ in height, and work well in perennial borders with shrubs, perennials, grasses, vines, ferns, succulents, bulbs, and ground covers.  Shorter cultivars make great underplantings for daylilies and shrubs such as rugosa roses and hydrangeas.  All three of the Euphorbias discussed here have linear leaves, tolerate average to dry soil, prefer good drainage, and require at least 4-6 hours of direct sunlight daily.

E. polychroma “Bonfire” grows to 18” high by 36” wide.  Its leaves are simultaneously red, purple, green, and orange, bleeding into each other, turning bright red in fall.   Bright yellow bracts cover the plant during late spring and early summer.  Pruning “Bonfire” back to 4” after blooming will prevent the plant from flopping during the summer.

E. x martinii “Ascot Rainbow” grows to 20-30”high by 20” wide.  Its variegated leaves bear pale yellow margins with lime and green centers, often blushed red-orange when young. The variegated bracts, which appear in late spring, have dark red eyes.  “Ascot Rainbow” likely won’t need pruning after blooming, remaining upright until fall.  The plant should be cut back the following spring, before the new growth emerges.

E. x martini “Tiny Tim” grows to 12” high by 18” wide.  It bears green leaves on deep red stems, with avocado green bracts and dark red eyes.  The bracts appear in late spring to early or mid-summer.  When the bloom stalks are unsightly, cut them back near the base of the plant to encourage new growth.

Euphorbias in a rocky garden with Sedums and Gypsophila.

Euphorbias in a rocky garden with Sedums and Gypsophila.

Many Euphorbias secrete milky latex when broken or abraded. Be very careful to avoid ingestion or contact with eyes.  Since this fluid can be an irritant, it is best to wear gloves when handling Euphorbias.