Pruning euphorbias

I’m on the phone waiting for a bank to take my call. The approximate waiting time is 30 minutes, so that should give me time to sneak in a blog post while I grit my teeth. (The hold music is spectacularly vile.)

This is a little tutorial for euphorbia management, inspired by Lisa’s comments yesterday. They are fantastic perennial drought tolerant beasties. But they contain a rather nasty poisonous sap, so care is required.

The main one I have in my garden in tremendous abundance is the Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii. So of course we are just going to call it Euphorbia wulfenii.

If you look at the plant here, you can see the two parts. The evergreen leaves. And the flowering bracts. Most of the year you just get fantastic neat evergreen leaves. If they grow too fluffy, you can prune the green leaves back at any time. (But see my notes on protection.)

This particular one self seeded brilliantly between two doors.

The flowering part is thrown up early spring on these long stalks which can ressemble skinny snakes if you don’t have your glasses.

On the right you can see some of previous years’ stalks which are unsightly, so often get pruned or cut back in winter if I remember.

The time to prune the plant is for you to decide. If you want the plant to self seed you will wait until the bracts in the centre of the ‘flower’ have gone dark and are ripe.

The seeds explode merrily over the garden. So leave them to do their magic and then when the bracts look unattractive, it’s time to prune.

If you don’t want them to self-seed you have to act while they are at their most spectacular. In flower.

And I can’t stress this enough. It’s time to put on the swimming goggles or eye protectors, gloves and haul out a pair of long loppers.

You are essentially cutting back the whole flowering part as close to the base of the plant as you can. You want the evergreen foliage to hide the cut stalk.

And of course you are going to get a face plant of euphorbia if you are not very careful.

If I don’t use my goggles I will have sore eyes at the end of the day. So I know to take care. I lean in carefully with my long loppers, cut close and then just drop the flowering part and stalk. Face averted.

And here’s the challenge. You then have to leave them be and walk away. The sap is going to ooze. A white sticky stuff that can cause itches and if you get them anywhere near your eyes….

We all take a pause there to think just how far away your local accident and emergency centre is located. And in our case, just how inefficient they prove to be.

But I have been growing them for 16 years and now have it down pat. You just have to treat them with respect. And not be neat.

If you leave the prunings on the ground for two days, then they are fine to bundle up and compost once they have dried out.

Because the wulfennii’s grow quite tall they present a challenge.

But for my other mighty euphorbia plant – euphorbia Robbiae – it’s easier. Mrs Robb’s bonnet. Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae. Much more controllable.

They don’t grow tall. You can cut the flowering stems off easily (but always with disposable or washable gloves). And you just have to accept these ones grow stealthily by underground runners. So they are going to spread a lot of they are happily situated.

You will notice your secateurs will get the milky sap on their blades. So either use a dedicated pair of not favourite secateurs. Or be diligent about cleaning them. And yourself afterwards.

It’s well worth the effort. They are marvellous garden plants.