Sticks on Fire

Killer plant on the loose.

This was a typical quiet Sunday morning, one spent calming myself through yoga at the gym (though my mind always spins too fast for the relaxation exercise), reading the papers (happily, Gil’s book is excerpted and reviewed in two), spoiling the dog and drinking too much coffee.

I had a plant I couldn’t identify that I had picked up last month when the nursery near the Cabin went out of business. A weird-looking creature, all green sticks, which sprawled so far around itself that it always threatened to tip over its ceramic pot. It started to sprout little leaf-like appendages that I thought might be flowers. Sweet.

my euphorbia

When I asked my brother, an expert with house plants, what it might be, he said immediately, Euphorbia. That was a pretty name, and I was glad I had this distinctive specimen.


This morning, to get a little more information on Euphorbia’ growing needs, I checked on line.

Turns out it’s a monster. Masquerading under many names: African milkbush, Fingertree, Indian Tree Spurge, Milkbush, Milkhedge, Penchtree, Petroleum-plant, Rubber Euphorbia, Firestick Plant, Naked Lady, Pencil Tree, Stick on Fire. Native to Madagascar and Africa, it squirts out its sap, a kind of white poison pus, when cut. The stuff can cause severe burning if it comes in contact with your skin, send you to the emergency room. A drop in your eye can blind. No wonder they use it as fencing in countries where there’s no Home Depot.


One neuroradiologist advises washing thoroughly and instantly with soap and water. However, “Don’t wash over dirty dishes in the sink-you don’t want to ingest even a tiny amount of residue from this powerful toxin.” Yet they’re widely sold as nice little house plants — toxic time bombs — with no warning label attached.

Out for a hike this afternoon to the perimeter of our land we found ourselves caught in angry nets of pricker bushes so thick and extensive it took will to shove through to a clearing. I got my hands (held up in a defensive posture) raked by the curving red stalks, and had thorns in my shoe by the time we reached home.


Here was a plant to rival Euphorbia in noxious temperament.

The difference being that the raspberry canes will give us beautiful juicy berries in July.

Euphorbia lies in the trash, long live Euphorbia.

1 Comment

Filed under Jean Zimmerman, Nature

One response to “Sticks on Fire

  1. Lori

    So many houseplants are actually pretty little poison plants that somebody found they could make money on. For my money, I like to raise things like avocado trees from seed, pineapple plants from … what else, and basil plants. Okay, so I also have a Maranta leuconeura erythroneuro, the ‘Red Prayer Plant’, because it does something most plants don’t do: it moves. Hey, I like to mix things up.
    Good thing you found out about that euphorbia before you did yourself hurt. They are interesting things, but very dangerous.
    As to the raspberries, it would be advisable to cut out the dead canes at this time of year. Raspberries, like many other berries, have biennial canes growing on perennial roots. The canes come up one year and spread their foliage, bear fruit and die the second year. The roots keep on living and spreading. To keep the plants at their peak, locate the canes that bore fruit this past summer. Cut them off at ground level to make room for the canes that will bear fruit. If it looks dead or dying, cut it off at ground level. Your reward will be bigger, lusher raspberries next June, and healthier plants.

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