A wave of euphorbia

Euphorbias have a myriad of hidden talents that make them one of Abbotswood’s best value plants for the garden…

Euphorbia robbiae with Helleborus x hybridus

Euphorbia robbiae with Helleborus x hybridus

Hardy garden euphorbias are the bogoffs of the garden. Buy one and you’ll get twice as much as you paid for. 

Offering winter structure, blousy bracts and foliage colours straight out of a Dulux paint chart – once established they can provide year-round interest, year after year.

Their ability to suit pretty much any soil, location and treatment, depending on the species, makes them a versatile plant for any border.

Spring stunners

Pay more attention to the flowers (or cyathium) of the euphorbia and you’ll notice that they are far from ordinary flowers, with tiny male and female buds surrounded by leaves and bracts, which seen from afar can look like giant flower heads.

Euphorbia oblongata  with  Cerinthe major

Euphorbia oblongata with Cerinthe major

Looking best when they are left to sprawl, euphorbias need cutting back after the flowers have gone over, removing the whole stem to make space for the new shoots and flowers.

Flowering from December to May, many of the earliest types enjoy partial shade so they’re good for north facing spots. The native wood spurge, E. amygdaloides var. robbiae is a tough evergreen that can tolerate dry soil under trees and makes good ground cover – as well as a fine cut-flower.

Yellow-green E. polychroma also blends beautifully with the blues of the late spring palette and combines well with Pulmonaria 'Blue Ensign'.

Backstage beauties

With so many different types of euphorbia, it’s possible to grow them at the back, middle and front of the border if desired.

Of the big guys, Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii and Euphorbia mellifera offer height, around 1.5m, and evergreen structure with golden to lime-green flowers that look stunning as a backdrop for purple tulips or erysimums. Edwardian designer Gertrude Jekyll described wulfenii as “one of the grandest plants”, and at its full height it brings a real sense of architecture to an herbaceous border. ‘Black Pearl’ is also an eye catcher with visible black nectar glands that look like tadpoles on stalks.

For patios and pots

Originating from the Mediterranean, many euphorbias will also grow happily in gravel and can give a flash of colour in a minimalist scheme. E. griffithii ‘Great Dixter’ is a spreading type that offers fiery orange red flowers, while E. Schillingii, or the Schilling spurge, is clump forming.

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Euphorbia griffithii  Great Dixter and  Saliva  sp.

Euphorbia griffithii Great Dixter and Saliva sp.

But the star hogging the footlights at the front of border is definitely E. Purpurea, with its acid green flowers against whorls of purple-pink leaves.

If you don’t have more than a patio, there are even euphorbias for pots. Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’ doesn't feel like it's in the same family with its masses of pure white bracts, held aloft effervescent apple green foliage. Though a tender plant, it is perfect for summer pots.

Although you'd be wise to wear gloves and long sleeves when pruning, thanks to the euphorbia’s skin-irritating milky sap (which is also poisonous when ingested), the plants make wonderful cut flowers, provided you soak the stems overnight and sear to stop them leaking.

Providing a colourful and structural backdrop to other flowers in an arrangement, the flowers and bracts are as much a star of the vase as they are of the garden.