The Euphorbiaceae is a large family. The name 'euphorbia' was first used in Roman times. It is thought that King Juba of Mauretania found the plant and named it for his physician Euphorbus. The stems of euphorbia exude a white milky juice which is toxic and great care must be taken when dealing with these plants. In England we grow a wide range of the hardy herbaceous and shrubby euphorbia but at this time of the year a tender one is particularly popular. I love the Euphorbia pulcherrima (Poinsettia) in December in the run up to Christmas but dispose of it with the rest of the decorations early in the New Year when I think you need daffodils to cheer up a dark winter's day.
E. 'Silver Swan' is a relatively new variegated cultivar which gives all year foliage with lovely creamy/green flowers in the spring. It is covered by Plant Breeder's rights, as is another of my modern favourites E. 'Excalibur' which is a stunning local plant introduced by the Fromefield Nursery at Romsey.
The first two euphorbias I grew were E. polychroma and E. characias subsp. wulfenii. These were recommended by the garden writer Margery Fish, who said that one of the excitements to cheer you up on a wet winters day was to look out of the window and see the end of stems bending over like shepherds crooks because she knew this was the precursor to flowering. In the 40 years I have been gardening seriously, the range of euphorbia has grown enormously. They are not normally particularly long lived and if, after a few seasons, they begin to look tatty they are better replaced. They grow fairly quickly so it does not take long to fill the gap. On the whole they like a well drained soil and Don Witton, the HPS member who holds the National Collection and has written the HPS booklet on euphorbia, says people dont always realise that they respond well to feeding. The Plant Finder now lists 5.5 columns of euphorbia but a few of my favourites are:
E. polychroma I think is a fantastic plant but Peter Chappell recommends the cultivar 'Midas' which originated at the Plantsman Nursery of Jim Archibold and Eric Smith. I also have the variegated form 'Lacy' which does really well in my south facing border and has lasted for about 6 or 7 years but does now need replacing.
Euphorbia characias - most of these are rather too large for my garden but I do love E. characias 'Portuguese Velvet' which really lives up to its name. I also had E. characias subsp. characias 'Blue Hills' which I found an excellent plant. Jane Sterndale-Bennett had E. characias subsp. wulfenii 'Jimmy Platt', which grew superbly on the chalk at White Windows; she was also very fond of E. characias subsp. wulfenii 'Purple and Gold'. Like Sue Ward, I would not be without E. characias 'Silver Swan' and, although I dont yet have it, I would like the variegated E. characias 'Kestrel'. This is a plant introduced by HPS member Jo Howe and sold by Bob Brown. I first saw it some years ago, when we were on an Autumn Weekend, growing in Jo's garden. All E. characias cultivars should be cut back in June or July.
Jane also persuaded me that I could not live without E. cornigera which is clump forming, has pale green leaves and branched heads of yellow flowers from June to August.
Euphorbia amygdaloides is our native plant. I particularly like the cultivar 'Red Shank', which was introduced by the Blackthorn Nursery. I also love Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae. I know it runs a little but it is very easy to keep under control. It is named for Mary Ann Robb who was a Victorian lady with a garden near Liphook. She thought that it was such a beautiful plant, she brought it back from Turkey in 1891 in her hat box for safe keeping!
I dont grow any of the E. cyparissias cultivars as they run so much, even on my heavy clay, but 'Fens Ruby' is a good red if you can cope with it. Another euphorbia which can be a bit of a thug is E. griffithii. I grow 'Fireglow', which was an Alan Bloom introduction, and just pull out the stems I dont want each spring. I think 'Dixter' is probably a deeper colour but it wont grow on my heavy soil. Another red which was immensely popular is E. dulcis 'Chameleon' but as it suffers from rust so badly it is not so widely grown these days. I still have a few plants which I allow to seed and then remove them when they get unsightly.
Euphorbia x martinii is a great plant which is a natural hybrid between E. characias and E. amygdaloides. Sue likes the cultivar 'Tiny Tim' for use in pots.
Two good prostrate species are E. rigida and E. myrsinites, both need well drained sites in full sun. 'Sardis' is a particularly good form of rigida; this was collected by Chris Brickell in Turkey. The above is a list of the euphorbia I have grown or know well but for a more detailed list I recommend Don Witton's HPS booklet on Euphorbias.
First published in the Hampshire Group Newsletter, Spring 2008
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 24
© Copyright for this article: Jennifer Harmer
This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2009. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.