The more I learn about plant taxonomy, the more I learn about plant taxonomy. That may sound simple, but it’s true. Generally, my lessons in plant taxonomy consist of learning a new botanical name. I’m slowly building this big dictionary of names that encompasses all of the plants on the planet! The real learning comes in all of the connections that I see – sometimes with my eyes, other times with the names.
I have been fascinated to find plants whose botanical names indicate that they are related, either in the same Genus or by Family, when I cannot see any resemblances in the related plants. Probably the most obvious example of this scenario is with the genus Euphorbia.
The genus Euphorbia contains more than 2000 unique species of plants, and probably well over 10,000 hybrids and cultivars. Can you believe that!?! I mean, as a little kid, that’s probably the number you would guess for how many plants are in the world. But no, that’s just how many species of Euphorbias there are!
Euphorbias range from very severe cactus-looking plants to more soft and fuzzy herbaceous-looking plants. Some are insular, which means they are endemic to an island. Here’s an idea of the contrast of the Euphorbia genus:
What!?! Those two plants are in the same genus? You might as well tell me that this dainty little plant (below) is also a Euphorbia!
Oh, it is!
I don’t really know what the qualifications are for putting plants in the same genus. The plants are supposed to follow the same family rules as those we use for our own families – they are supposed to claim the same ancestors. [I’m related to my sister and my 2nd cousin because of common ancestors – parents and grandparents, respectively.] So, the two plants pictured above are supposed to have descended from the same plant at some point. It would be interesting to study what environmental conditions led to such different species attributes. I’m sure someone has studied that. Euphorbia is a pretty well-known, popular genus.
Currently DNA studies are still pretty costly (time and money) and I don’t know how much work has been done on the genus Euphorbia. Another criterion for putting plants into genera is to create reasonable compactness. The word “reasonable” is an ambiguous measure, but I would say that the Euphorbia genus is overly-large in comparison with 95% of other plant genera.
I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple years down the road I hear that the Euphorbia genus is going to be ripped into two, three or even 15 pieces. I’m sure all the little children of the world will be in shock, kind of like when Czechoslovakia became two countries or when Pluto was informed that it was no longer a planet.
The one attribute of which I am aware that all Euphorbias have is the milky sap inside the plants. I don’t suggest snapping any of your Euphorbias apart to see, but most people have seen the white sap when a Poinsettia leaf breaks off the plant. This sap is supposedly present in all Euphorbias.
Many Euphorbias have very similar inflorescences. They are little bell shapes borne on tall stems, with leaves right up to the blooms. You’ll see the similarities in the pictures below.
The Perennial Shrubs
I’m just becoming familiar with the group of Euphorbias that are grown outdoors in the mid-latitudes gardens. They are commonly called Spurges, but usually called by one of their cultivar names, such as ‘Chameleon,’ ‘Tiny Tim,’ or ‘Blackbird.’ I have one of these plants (‘Excalibur’) planted in my corner garden and pictured lower in this post.
These are really neat shrubs because of the color contrast in their foliage. And even though these plants grow in similar conditions in the garden as Azaleas and other tough shrubs, they still have a succulent aspect to them. I don’t generally picture succulents stuck in between Irises and Barberry bushes.
I don’t know for sure, but I would guess that the majority of Euphorbias are considered succulents. Many of these have the characteristic spikiness that we generally call a “cactus” and have only small leaves that quickly fall away. The stems themselves do the photosynthesis, in these cases.
There is an interesting distinction between Euphorbias and Cacti, though. Cacti are from the Western Hemisphere and Euphorbias are from the Eastern Hemisphere. I haven’t determined whether the names are applied due to their location of origin, or if they are actually different, as well as being from different sources.
I have to admit that I am not a big fan of cacti-looking plants, but some of these would be hard to pass by if I saw one for sale. I am a big fan of E. greenwayi and E. aeruginosa. It looks like I’ll need to invest in a really good pair of gloves before I get either of those, though.
My own collection
I’m not sure that “collection” is the best word to use when describing my Euphorbia plants, seeing that I don’t have very many. I think the word “collection” could be applied to my dream set of Euphorbias, though. The more plants I see from this genus, the more I want to try growing.
I bought a Caribbean Copper plant (Euphorbia cotinifolia pictured earlier in the “Perennial Shrubs” section of this post) at the Bustani Plant Farm earlier this summer. I had planned to put this plant in a pot with my Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’ for contrasting foliage size and color, but the plant I bought is a little more leggy than I had expected. For now I have the plant growing solo in a pot. Maybe with a little pruning I can encourage a more dense growth habit.
I have a couple of ‘Diamond Frost’ Euphorbias (pictured at the top of this post) planted in pots around our house. They are one of the coolest container plants I have seen!
On Monday I posted about some new plants I received recently, including a variegated Pedilanthus tithymaloides, which is in the same family as the Euphorbia genus (Euphorbiaceae) and has the synonym of Euphorbia tithymaloides.
Of course, I also have a couple of Poinsettias, such as the white one pictured at the top of this post.
There are tons of different Euphorbias, including some that grow into trees. I have seen the Jamaican Poinsettia Tree in bloom at the OKC Myriad Gardens and it was pretty spectacular.
What Euphorbias have you grown?