Least Favorite Plant: Euphorbia tirucalli

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.

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  1. I do understand not liking them outdoors, because they’re kind of a menace, but I like my indoor one quite a lot. Mostly ’cause it looks pleasantly weird and it’s never given me a moment of trouble, culture-wise. (And I’ve had it for nine years, so.) They’re really only nasty when they’re acting in self-defense.

    Though they’re really into self-defense. You left out the part where they might help trigger cancer, though.[1]

    [1] (only under certain conditions fairly specific to its native range; I doubt there’s much to worry about in L.A., unless y’all have malaria problems I don’t know about)

  2. Good god, a hemorrhoid cure! Thanks for digging up that detail, Mr. Subjunctive. Excellent post–I’m going to switch out my Wikipedia link for yours.

    And, yes it is striking and probably harmless as a house plant. I’m just scarred from dealing with the monstrous specimen that used to menace our back door.

  3. And it is true that you have to wear full body protection when pruning a tree sized version, speaking from personal experience. The sap drips like crazy and if it touches any exposed skin you get an instant rash. Sawdust burns the lungs, so you need a face mask too. Goggles should be obvious. That being said, our insane tree trimmer did without all of those things. Something to be said for the power of mixing booze, pharmaceuticals and a chain saw.

  4. interesting tree..showing a double edge effect..both positive and negative..well then it must have been created for something else (fuel source as mentioned) not as an ornamental plant that could mess up your neighbor’s fence

  5. I bought one of these babies at Walmart. I thought it was a cactus (the label said it was a cactus!) It was maybe 18″ tall. It got a bit roughed up on the way home and started oozing “Agent White” and I started having burning eyes and my throat was closing up. I looked online for my symptoms and read HORROR STORIES of this plant that made my blood curdle. I returned it to Walmart and told them that the plant should have a warning. They looked at me like a nut case (which I suppose I am).
    N-a-s-t-y… plant.

    Imagine horseradish, only in your eyes, from 25 feet away.

  6. Thanks for sharing. First off, this plant is insane and scary. But more importantly, I’m SO happy you introduced me to “Plants are the Strangest People.” Fun blog.

  7. What a wicked plant!

    We don’t have anything nearly that bad in our yard, but we do constantly fight back ivy, morning glory, and something my husband and I refer to as “evil fern” (a fern with thorns) from encroaching on our garden from the neighbors’ yards.

  8. I believe this tree plays a role toward the end of the movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy.

  9. Very interesting story. Last summer, I went on a trip to Ethiopia with a friend to a very remote village, where this plant is EVERYWHERE. I finally understand now why the people plant them all around their homes because of the article you linked to. The people use this to ward off malaria causing mosquitoes, so there are some good uses for this potentially dangerous plant.

    The villagers there repeated warned me not to get it in my eyes, and I’m grateful for their kind warnings. The friend that I was accompanying was not so lucky, however.

    When he was a child, he was abducted and INTENTIONALLY blinded by the sap in this plant and forced to beg on the streets of Ethiopia. We went back to this remote village 16 years after the fact to reunite him with his mother, whom he had not seen since he was taken from her.

    Anyway, thank you for the information that you posted. It helped me out in my research. If you want to know more about my friend, you can read more in my blog, blindpromises.blogspot.com

  10. whoa. that stuff sounds nasty. Getting it in your eyes? Yikes. I’m glad that stuff doesn’t grow around here (dallas).
    I might trade it for poison ivy though. 🙂

  11. I am glad I check up on our new Euphorbia tirucalli we just bought at the plant fair at Balboa Park in San Diego. We will not encourage it to grow and definitly not prune it.

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