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Euphorbia tirucalli L. 1753
pronounced: yoo-FOR-bee-uh tee-roo-KALL-ee
(Euphorbiaceae – the spurge family)
common names: Naked Lady, Pencil Tree, Rubber-hedge Euphorbia
This strange plant is widely distributed in Africa, the surrounding islands and the Arabian peninsular, as well as in India, and it has been introduced to many other tropical regions. Its original habitat is not known precisely. It grows in dry areas, and is often used as hedging.
Euphorbia tirucalli is a many-branched, succulent plant that usually grows to 3–5 m in height, but may reach 10 m on occasion. The bark of very old specimens is grey and rough, with longitudinal dents and ridges that break up into very small fragments. There are sometimes conspicuous small protuberances, such as bulges, knobs or swellings, on the bark, and occasionally rough black crosswise bands. The branches are cylindrical, smooth and glabrous, green, 5–8 mm in diameter, forming brush-like masses. The plant photographed is in an abandoned garden of succulents and agaves in the bush by the side of the ‘track’ section of Yule Street, Picnic Bay.
The leaves are small and slender, up to 12 x 1.5 mm, and rarely seen, as they fall very early. Leaf scars on young twigs form conspicuous dents, which contract until they are no more than grey dots on older branchlets. The thin twigs are pendant, pale green, and occur opposite each other, alternate, or in groups on the branchlets, which gives a rather untidy and rounded appearance to the crowns.
The flowers are yellow, inconspicuous, and carried in clusters at the apex of the short branches or in the angles of branches. The fruits are tripartite capsules just over 1 cm in diameter, longitudinally very slightly lobed, short-stalked (8 mm), pale green, with a pink tinge and conspicuously pubescent. The capsules dehisce while still on the tree. Generally the stalks are bent at an angle.
The seeds are oval, about 4 x 3 mm, glabrous, smooth, and dark brown with a white line around the small white fleshy wart near the hilum of the seed.
This spineless species contains large quantities of latex which is freely exuded by the twigs and branchlets at the slightest injury. It is corrosive and extremely toxic. Contact with skin can cause severe burning, and contact with eyes can blind for up to a week. If swallowed, the latex can burn the lips, mouth and tongue. Deaths have been recorded from swallowing the sap. Extreme caution should be used in handling this plant.
The latex can be used to produce ethanol fuel. It could be a valuable source of this, as the plants will grow in marginal soils where other plants have difficulty. Experiments have also been made to produce rubber from the latex, but these have not been very successful.
Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2009, 2014, Nelly Bay 2014
Page last updated 3rd December 2016