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.
While Ficus benjamina, a.k.a. “weeping fig”, is one of my least favorite trees, my most favorite photographer, Elon Schoenholz is currently posting a series of ficus tree images on his blog. Schoenholz, wisely, takes a neutral stance on this hot button tree describing Ficus as,
“L.A.’s favorite underappreciated, unheralded, unfavorite curbside flora. I have no real love for these trees, per se, no sentimental attachment. They just express form and mass and scale and human intervention in a way that I enjoy, like nothing else in the urban landscape as I encounter it.”
He’s wise to be neutral. A civil insurection broke out in Santa Monica over plans to replace ficus trees with ginko trees in the downtown area. Hunger strikes were threatened and activists chained themselves to their beloved Ficii. In the end 23 Ficus trees were removed by the city.
Ficus fans and foes alike should visit Schoenholz’s Etsy store for some handsome photos of what city employees can do with those power trimmers.
Riding on the Amtrak San Joaquin train two weeks ago I discovered a new metric: the economic health of a city can be judged by the size of its trees of heaven (aka Ailanthus altissima, aka “ghetto palm”). The higher the ghetto palms, the more likely a city is to be in the crapper.
Tree of heaven is a super weed much reviled by gardeners and landscapers for its unstoppable ability to grow in nearly every climate in the most inhospitable conditions. In a move that will raise a lot of horticultural hackles, the Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop has gone beyond the “if you’ve got lemons make lemonade” phase of their project and has deliberately planted a ghetto palm farm. From their press release:
“Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop has established its first Tree of Heaven Farm on a vacant Detroit city lot for future harvest. We planted seedlings in beds of car tires. The tires protect the young trees while they are growing but also determine their lifetime to a size when the trunks are suitable for processing. We assume this period of growth to be approx. 40 years. Within this timespan we will maintain the plantation and keep the lot free of any kind of real estate speculation or building activity. The plantation has been realized with the support of the SMART Museum of Art, University of Chicago and a documentation is on display in the current Heartland exhibition.”
The Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop has turned sculptures and made furniture out of tree of heaven for a few years now. They’ve also come up with a stinky tree of heaven sauna:
“We have another small installation in the SMART Museums Heartland exhibition: A humidifier is installed in the museum lobby. The water tank of the device contains some pieces of Tree of Heaven wood (coll. Ghetto Palm). This is how the active substances get extracted in traditional Chinese medicine to cure a wide range of ailments from digestion problems, mental conditions, balding, to asthma and even cancer. In these tough economical times, a constant flow of steam will benefit all visitors with the spirit of this true Detroit resource.”
Invasion biology becomes art. If you can’t beat em’ you might as well find a use for em’.
Thumbing through a book of toxic and hallucinogenic plants, I finally manged to i.d. the neighbor’s shrub that looms over the staircase to our front door. The popular name given for this plant in the book was “suicide tree”, so named for its use in Sri Lanka, though I’ve found other plants with this same moniker. The scientific name is Thevetia peruviana, and it’s also known as “lucky nut” (can we change that to unlucky nut please?), Be Still Tree (presumably because you’ll be still if you eat any of it), and yellow oleander (it’s a relative of Southern California’s favorite freeway landscaping flower). I was able to dig up a research study on what the authors described as an “epidemic” of yellow oleander poisoning in Sri Lanka,
“Accidental poisonings occur throughout the tropics, particularly in children. Adults have died after consuming oleander leaves in herbal teas. However, deliberate ingestion of yellow oleander seeds has recently become a popular method of self harm in northern Sri Lanka. There are thousands of cases each year, with a case fatality rate of at least 10%. Around 40% require specialised management and are transferred from secondary hospitals across the north to the Institute of Cardiology in Colombo”
Native to central and south America Thevetia peruviana made its way to Sri Lanka only recently, with the suicides starting up within the last 25 years, according to an article in Bio-Medicine. Apparently news accounts of suicides have fueled its use. The Bio-Medicine article describes a typical incident, “I remember one girl said her mother wanted her to get up and do the shopping. She said no, her mother scolded her and she took a yellow oleander seed.”
A semi-popular landscaping plant, it grows without any water or care here in Los Angeles, though a hard frost would kill it. The elderly neighbor who used to live next door told me that she brought it with her from Mexico. I’ve seen it growing in vacant lots and by the freeway, so it seems to be able to spread on its own. So why put it on the least favorite plant list? It’s neither beautiful nor useful (unless you want to kill someone or hate shopping) nor does it seem to provide habitat or forage for beneficial wildlife. Why plant something that can accidentally poison a toddler?