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Euphorbia leucocephala Lotsy 1895
(Euphorbiaceae — the spurge family)
common names: Snowflake, Snows of Kilimanjaro
Both the species and family names are 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. Leucocephala is from the Greek λευκος (leucos), white, and κεφαλη (kephalé), head. Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa.
Snowflake comes from central America, and is widely grown in tropical regions. It forms a spreading shrub to about 3 metres tall, with non-invasive roots. In winter the tree produces a mass of small white flowers, grouped together at the ends of branches and surrounded by white leaf-like bracts. The small flowers are fragrant and attract butterflies. Like its relative the poinsettia, the flowers appear to be controlled by what is called photoperiod, which means that the flowers are formed as the days become shorter. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that it is better not to plant this bush too close to street lamps or security lights.
When parts of the plant are broken, a good deal of white milky latex appears. This latex is an irritant, and may cause skin blisters and rashes. If the sap or any other part of the plant is ingested, symptoms may include vomiting and diarrhoea, and a burning sensation in the mouth and throat. If any sap gets in the eyes, it can do considerable damage. The eye should be continuously rinsed in water for at least 15 minutes, and medical assistance should be urgently sought.
After the flowering has finished, the tree briefly loses its leaves, and this is when severe pruning should be done. Many gardeners prune right back to bare wood. From spring, the leaves grow back and the shrub is green for the rest of the year. Some gardeners give another light clip in early summer. Snowflake likes well-drained soil and a position in full sun to semi-shade. A slow-release fertilizer, applied after pruning, seems to suit this plant. It is very drought tolerant, but blooms best with some watering if the weather is very dry.
Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2008-2016
Page last updated 3rd December 2016