Euphorbias

Euphorbias

Hardy euphorbias, commonly known as spurges, make ideal plants for any gardener who rates themself as ‘keen but clueless’, yet a little bit adventurous. First and foremost they are excellent garden plants that can be used in the border and in containers, producing bold outlines and striking flowering displays. Although the true flowers are insignificant, euphorbias more than make up for it with eye-catching bracts borne during late spring and early summer. Secondly, euphorbias offer year-round interest, so are an important ingredient of a border display - providing structure as well as seasonal variety. They are all problem free, with a liking for a sunny position, although most will grow happily in semi-shade. Once the plants are established they are remarkably drought tolerant. Perhaps their only failing is that a few in the clan can become invasive if given a free reign. However, there are plenty of well-behaved varieties to choose from.

Euphorbias as a group are very diverse including the poinsettia (sold as a colourful house plant around Christmas time) as well as a range of succulent cactus-like species. However, it is only the hardy garden varieties we feature here. All euphorbias have milky sap which can irritate the skin and is poisonous if ingested, so always wear gloves and long sleeves when handling a member of this family.

Variety guide

Hardy euphorbias come in a range of colours shapes and sizes, so can be used in a variety of locations around the garden.

Back of the border

Larger euphorbias, such as the evergreen E. characias subsp. wulfenii grows to an impressive 1m or more, filling borders with their booming shapes, soft grey-blue leaves and fabulous limy-yellow flowerheads. One of the best varieties to grow is 'Lambrooke Gold' which has particularly large and bright flowerheads. Another good choice is 'John Tomlinson' which has more rounded flowers in a really bright shade of yellowish-green. 'Black Pearl' is more unusual, having pale green leaves and strikingly black eyes in the middle of the yellow flowers. Another large euphorbia is E. mellifera , it grows to 1.2m and can spread to 1.75m, if you let it. The leaves are a rich, fresh green with distinctive white veins. The brownish flowers are produced in spring and smell of honey. E. sikkimensis which doesn't bloom until later, produces particularly attractive bright pink new shoots in spring and yellow bracts in late summer. All make strong feature plants in the border.

Middle of the Border

A slightly smaller variety is 'Blue Wonder' which grows to 75cm and it has lovely, really blue, leaves. In a hot, sunny spot it looks gorgeous mixed with the purplish-blue foliage of Cerinthe major. For totally different look use E. palustris which grows to 90cm with brilliant yellow flower bracts against oblong pale-green bracts, these take on attractive orange tints in autumn. E. griffithii 'Fireglow' and 'Dixter' are lovely euphorbias with very dark green leaves against which the flowers are bright orange. E. schillingii is an excellent mid-border shrub, growing into a neat clump 75cm tall. It flowers in late summer, producing lime-green bracts which last right through the autumn. E. characias 'Humpty Dumpty' is also worth considering for although small, growing to only 60cm, it has all the magnificence of the larger E. x wulfenii varieties. Plant these euphorbias with grasses and bright flowered geums to bring out a tropical feel.

Front of the border

One of the best is the late spring flowering. E. polychroma which forms a bright green dome of foliage just 40cm high, covered in bright yellow bracts. Low-growing E. amygdaloides 'Purpurea' and 'Robbiae' both reach about 45cm and have dark evergreen glossy leaves that are purple or pale green respectively when young. Both these varieties bare greenish-yellow flowers in mid- to late spring.