Saturday 21 September 2019

Time to enjoy a sense of euphorbia

Set off your bright spring bulbs against long-lasting euphorbias

Euphorbias: The sharp yellow-green is a perfect complement to spring flowers, bringing them alive.
Euphorbias: The sharp yellow-green is a perfect complement to spring flowers, bringing them alive.
Woodville Gardens

Gerry Daly

Spring bulbs are bright and cheery on their own but if you want to make your jewels really sparkle, get some lime-green or acid-yellow euphorbias to enhance the daffodils and tulips, and later the purple alliums and blue camassias. Euphorbia lacks a good common name - it is sometimes known as milk weed or milk wort, ''wort'' being an old English word for plant. The reference to milk is due to the white sap that pours from damage to the leaves or stems.

The garden euphorbias are looking their best around now, some earlier, others later to flower, and will do so for weeks, even months, to come. The flowers last so long because they are in reality bracts, coloured flower-like leaves - think of the red bracts of Christmas poinsettia, itself a member of the euphorbia family.

Japanese quince
Japanese quince

There are several good ornamental species, all flowering in spring and lasting into early summer. Most kinds have yellow-green flowers, but of a most vivid, striking colour.

The sharp yellow-green is a perfect complement to spring flowers, bringing them alive. The colour highlights yellow and red tulips and makes a perfect contrast with purple or blue flowers. A combination of yellow, acid-green and purple is very strong. The yellow-green of euphorbias brings up pink flowers too, such as bergenias or pink cherries, and it is lovely with the snow-storm white flowers of amelanchier. Finally, it lifts grey or silver foliage out of its winter dullness.

There are garden euphorbias for most purposes. The best is probably Euphorbia polychroma, a relatively small grower, forming a rounded plant less than knee-high, covered with bright yellow-green flowers. The bright flowers will bring a whole border alive, and it is best to plant three, four or more of these plants, but spread randomly along a border or around the garden. The colour of each one plays off the other and heightens the decorative effect. Apart from its pretty flowers, Euphorbia polychroma has the big advantage of a clump- forming habit that does not spread.

Not all garden euphorbias are as well behaved. The smaller Euphorbia cyparissias is a rapid runner and, though not seriously competitive, can come up in the middle of other plants. That one would be best avoided, unless planted where it can rampage all it likes, such as a rough grassy bank or edging with spring bulbs and a few shrubs.

An evergreen species, Euphorbia robbiae, is even more useful for filling out awkward places where it is difficult to get anything to grow. This excellent plant is tolerant of dry soil, quite heavy shade and weed competition. No weed can compete with its dark green, knee-high leaves. However, it can become a problem itself in a flower border. It spreads far and wide and is difficult to control and should only be planted where it can spread as much as it likes but is contained by paths or walls, or in semi-wild areas.

The flowers are lime-green, greener than the yellow of Euphorbia polychroma. The flowers last for months, eventually turning to brown.

Bigger again is the magnificent Euphorbia wulfenii, more than waist high and forming a rounded bush of evergreen stems and leaves. Although it's not a shrub, it has the stature of a shrub. Its handsome shape is very distinctive with flowers carried in great, club-shaped spikes.

There are several kinds. The species itself has green flowers with brown eyes and the most commonly available kind, Euphorbia wulfenii ssp characias has light green flowers.

Less often seen, usually in seaside gardens, is the shrubby Euphorbia mellifera, the honey euphorbia.

In flower, it is scented of honey and is the best garden plant for beneficial hoverflies. It has brown flowers over fine evergreen foliage and makes a large, fast-growing bush, excellent for winter greenery. It likes well-drained soil, not too rich.

In damp soil, the lovely yellow-green Euphorbia palustris thrives.


n Wonder what variety of daff that is in your garden? Bring a sample on April 13 to the Heritage Daffodil Day at Woodville Walled Garden in Kilchreest, Loughrea, Co Galway, where guest speaker Michael Redfern, who has devoted many years to ''old daffodils'', will help identify it. Talk at 2pm, followed by tour of gardens. Price €12 and booking essential; Margarita on 087 906 9191;


n The pretty red flowers of Japanese quince have been on show this year from late winter - a sure sign that the weather has been mild. The Japanese quince, Chaenomeles japonica, opens flowers from late winter to late spring and it is no surprise that this pretty shrub has long been popular in gardens. It is a form of quince and can be used in making quince jelly.


n Garden expert Peter Dowdall will give a demo at Beech Hill Garden Centre in Cork's Montenotte on April 13, to raise funds for the Cope Foundation's Flowers of Hope campaign. The charity supports those with intellectual disabilities. Tickets €15, (021) 464 3100, or

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