When we bought the glorified shack which is our house, it came with a collection of trees I’d never plant including a twenty foot tall, multi-trunk, Euphorbia tirucalli also known as the “pencil tree.” In most places Euphorbia tirucalli, which hails from tropical Africa, is only a house plant, but here in frost free Los Angeles, the damn thing can grow to massive proportions. Merely cutting a limb of this toxic tree produces drops of sticky white latex capable of raising welts, should it contact the skin, and clouds of eye searing sawdust. We had our eccentric tree trimmer, who would sometimes show up as late as 9 pm, chainsaw in hand, take the sucker out. I’m especially glad I removed this living Superfund site after hearing a story neighbor Pilar told me this morning.
A woman, getting out of a car, caught part of the Euphorbia tirucalli tree on her car door, breaking a branch and causing some of that toxic sap to fall into her eyes. She started screaming in pain immediately and could not see. Pilar rushed her to the emergency room where she spent several hours hooked up to apparatus that flushed out her eyes. Thankfully she escaped any permanent injury.
Ironically, for such a toxic plant, it has many uses, both historical and proposed:
- Plant blogger Mr. Subjunctive included it in his list of useful houseplants to fend off zombies with over at Plants are the Strangest People.
- It’s been proposed as a cancer cure, I suppose because it’s so nasty that you’ll forget you have cancer.
- Africans use it as a mosquito repellent and fish poison.
- Petrobas, the Brazilian national petroleum company, is investigating the use of the latex as a fuel source. Tap into the trunk and perhaps we can propel one our rapidly gentrifying neighborhood’s many Priusi.
- The Purdue University Center for New Crops and Plants Products lists off dozens of uses for the plant including this gem: “In Tanganyika, the latex is used for sexual impotence (but users should recall ‘the latex produces so intense a reaction … as to produce temporary blindness lasting for several days.'”
Using temporary blindness to cure sexual impotence, ain’t exactly a compliment to one’s partner. Spammers take note: you’ve got a new plant product to push.
For medical information on the eye damage caused by Euphorbia tirucalli see a case study here:: http://www.hkcem.com/html/publications/Journal/2009-4/p267-270.pdf. And, as that case study points out, remember to wear eye protection when you take this plant out of your garden.