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Euphorbia characias ‘Tasmanian Tiger’ (photo courtesy of PlantHaven International, Inc.)
Euphorbia characias ‘Tasmanian Tiger’ (photo courtesy of PlantHaven International, Inc.)

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Zone
Zones 13, 16-25, 27, 28, H1, H2
Full Sun
Full
Regular Water
Moderate
Toxicity
Sap may be mildly irritating to skin or stomach

Euphorbia pulcherrima

Poinsettia
Euphorbiaceae
Deciduous, Evergreen, Shrubs, Semi-evergreen

EUPHORBIA

Diverse genus of about 2,000 species, ranging from small flowery annuals to sculptural trees. The flower is technically a cyathium, consisting of fused bracts that form a cup around the much-reduced true flowers. Cyathia may appear singly or in clusters. In some cases, as with poinsettia (E. pulcherrima), additional bracts below provide most of the color. The fruit is usually a dry capsule that releases seeds explosively, shooting them up to several feet away. Many euphorbias are succulents; these often mimic cacti in appearance and are as diverse in form and size.

All euphorbias have milky white sap that is irritating on contact or toxic if ingested (degree of irritation or toxicity varies, depending on the species). Before using cut flowers in arrangements, dip stems in boiling water or hold in a flame for a few seconds to prevent sap bleed. All need well-drained soil.

Euphorbia pulcherrima
Euphorbia pulcherrima

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Euphorbia pulcherrima

From Mexico. Leggy plant to 10 ft. or taller, 6 ft. wide. Coarse leaves grow on stiffly upright canes. Showy part of plant consists of petal-like bracts; true flowers in center are yellowish, inconspicuous. Red single form is the most familiar; less well known are double-bracted red sorts and forms with white, yellowish, pink, or marbled bracts. Plants bloom only when they experience long nights—in winter and into spring. Milky sap is not poisonous; most people find it either completely harmless or at most mildly irritating to skin or stomach.

Useful garden plant in well-drained soil and full sun (light shade in Zone 13). Where adapted outdoors, needs no special care. Grow as an informal hedge in frost-free areas; where winter weather is frosty (but not severely cold), plant against a sunny wall, in a sheltered corner, or under south-facing eaves (east-facing ones in Zone 13). Thin branches in summer to produce larger bracts; or prune them back at 2-month intervals for bushy growth (but often smaller bracts). To improve red color, feed every 2 weeks with high-nitrogen fertilizer, starting when color begins to show.

To care for a holiday gift plant, keep in a sunny window and avoid sudden temperature changes. Keep soil moist but don’t let water stand in the pot saucer. When leaves drop in late winter or early spring, cut stems back to two buds and reduce watering to a minimum. Store in a cool place until danger of frost is past; then set plant out in the garden or keep in a pot in a sunny spot on the patio. Potted plant will probably grow too tall for indoor use the next winter, but may survive winter if well sheltered. Start new plants by making late-summer cuttings of stems with four or five eyes (joints).

To get potted plant to bloom at Christmas time (earlier than in nature), do this: starting in early October, move it to a completely darkened closet each night for 14 hours; then, in the morning, move it into light for a maximum of 10 hours. Continue the process for 10 weeks.

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