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Euphorbia lactea Haw. 1812
pronounced: yoo-FOR-bee-uh lack-TEE-uh
(Euphorbiaceae — the spurge family)
common names: Mottled Spurge, False Cactus, Hatrack Cactus, Candlestick Tree
Euphorbia is derived from the name of Euphorbus, Greek physician to Juba II, King of Numidia from 52 to 53 BC. Pliny the Elder, writing in his Naturalis Historia in about 77 AD, describes how the king found a plant growing on Mount Atlas which he named euphorbia in honour of his physician. The word itself comes from two Greek words, ευ (eu), well, and φερβω (pherbo), to feed or nourish, so the good doctor’s name means ‘well-nourished, or fat’, and may have been a nickname. Lactea is from the Latin lacteus, milky.
This plant looks very much like a cactus, but is actually a spurge. It is a native of India and Sri Lanka, but is cultivated in many tropical and subtropical parts of the world. It is much used for hedging both in Florida and in the West Indies. Widely escaped from cultivation, in many places the plants form dense thickets.
It is a cactus-like shrub with its branches bearing a mottled white marked area running through the middle of each face. It forms a straight brown fissured woody trunk with whorls of branches nearly to the base. It will grow up to 5 m tall, though usually less in cultivation, with its succulent branches 10-30 cm long and 3-5 cm in diameter, ridged, with a triangular or rhombic cross-section. The ridges are spiny, with short brown to black spines up to 5 mm long. The leaves are minute, 3-4 mm in diameter, forming at the growing tips in summer, and soon falling off. The leaves are alternate, stalkless, rudimentary, circular, and reddish.
The yellow flowers (cyathia) are small and inconspicuous, borne intermittently. It is not known to flower in captivity.
The fruits are 3-lobed capsules, usually seen only in the wild.
All parts of the plant contain a copious corrosive and poisonous milky latex. This sap causes skin rash and blisters, intensive burning, and, if splashed into the eye, temporary blindness. When it affects the eyes, the eye should be rinsed with water for 15 minutes, and medical attention should be sought.
The sap is in some places used medicinally for warts and tumours. The succulent parts of the plant are used in India to make a hot poultice to treat rheumatism.
Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.
Photographed in Barbarra Street, Picnic Bay, 2009
Page last updated 30th December 2017