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A Floridata Plant Profile #736 Euphorbia characias
Common Names: Mediterranean spurge
Family: Euphorbiaceae (spurge Family)
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Shrub  Perennial  Has evergreen foliage Has Unusual or Interesting Foliage Flowers

Mediterranean spurge
What looks like yellow green flowers are actually bracts (modified leaves) but they are just as showy and colorful.
Mediterranean spurge is a shrubby, non-succulent euphorb with upright purplish-green stems that are smooth and woody at their bases and covered with fine, wooly hairs farther out. Broken stems exude a white milky latex sap. The leaves are blue green, linear, 4-6 in (10.2-15.2 cm) long and arranged spirally along the stems. The leaves are dense and crowded near the tips of the stems but are sparse or absent near the bases. Insignificant little flowers (they don't even have petals) are arranged in dense clusters of showy yellowish green bracts (modified leaves). These rounded clusters are held proudly above the foliage from early spring through early summer. Each individual bract has a purplish brown gland (nectary) that produces nectar to attract pollinating insects. Mediterranean spurge forms a dome-shaped bush 3-5 ft (0.9-1.5 m) tall with a spread of 2-3 ft (0.6-0.9 m).

The cultivar 'Blue Hills' has blue-gray leaves and large yellow flower bracts. 'Lambrook Gold' has bright golden-green bracts. 'John Tomlinson' is more robust and has almost spherical chartreuse flower bracts to 16 in (40.6 cm) in diameter. 'Ember Queen' has strikingly beautiful variegated foliage. Euphorbia X martinii is a natural hybrid between Mediterranean spurge and wood spurge (E. amygdaloides). It is smaller, to 2' (0.6 m) tall and has dark red nectar glands on the flower bracts which are arranged in elongate clusters 4-5 in (10.2-12.7 cm) across.

Mediterranean spurge comes from the Mediterranean region. Most cultivars were selected from subspecies wulfenii which occurs naturally in Turkey and the Balkans. Subspecies characias occurs in Portugal, Spain and the western Mediterranean region. Both subspecies grow on rocky hillsides, along road shoulders, in open woods and in olive groves. Mediterranean spurge is a very popular ornamental with gardeners in southern Europe.

Light: Mediterranean spurge likes full sun; it tolerates a little shade but will not be as robust as plants grown in full sun.
Moisture: Mediterranean spurge needs well drained soils. It is fairly drought resistant, but should be watered during prolonged dry periods.
Hardiness: USDA Zones 7 - 10. Mediterranean spurge can tolerate temperatures way below zero, but only if the soil remains dry.
Propagation: Propagate Mediterranean spurge from seeds which germinate readily. Named cultivars can be started from tip cuttings in spring and early summer. Dip the cut ends in charcoal powder to reduce bleeding.

Mediterranean spurge
This is subspecies 'wulfenii' growing in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Mediterranean spurge is used in mixed borders, where it commands attention in winter and spring and politely fades to the background in summer. They usually live only two or three years but they reseed themselves eagerly. All that the gardener has to do is select which seedlings to keep, which to move, and which to send to spurge heaven. Cut out spent flower shoots if you don't need more seeds.

Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932), probably the most important influence on 20th century English and American gardeners, called Mediterranean spurge "... one of the grandest and most pictorial of plants." It certainly is very attractive in its winter foliage and in spring when in bloom, but Mediterranean spurge tends to fizzle out in the heat of summer.

There are some 2000 species in the genus Euphorbia, including cactuslike spiny succulents, perennial herbs, shrubs and even trees. Hundreds of euphorbs are grown as ornamentals and poinsettia (E. pulcherrima) is the basis of a huge Christmas season industry.

The white, milky sap is poisonous and a skin irritant. Even dried stems can cause a skin reaction. All euphorbias bleed a similar white latex sap when their stems are damaged, so it's a good idea to wear gloves when handling any members of this huge genus. Fish and other aquatic animals can be killed if pieces of euphorb stem fall into the water. Sap in the eyes can cause blindness. If you do get the sap on your skin or in your eyes, wash immediately with plenty of water.

Steve Christman 7/10/00; updated 6/25/04

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