Euphorbia characias (Mediterranean Spurge)

Euphorbia characias also known as the Mediterranean spurge, is an evergreen multi-stemmed perennial forming a lovely round clump. Its long, pointy blue-green leaves spiral along the stems providing a sense of rhythm. At the tip of the stem, is a spectacular cylindrical inflorescence, composed of yellow-green flowers with a dark red eye that starts to bloom in late winter.

Euphorbia characias is a drought-tolerant hardy plant native to the Southwestern and Central Mediterranean region.

Euphorbia characias plant (Mediterranean Spurge)

Quick Overview

TYPE

HEIGHT & WIDTH

Euphorbia characias height and width

BLOOM TIME

Euphorbia characias bloom time

SUNLIGHT

full sun

HARDINESS

hardiness (-12ºC / 10º F)

DROUGHT TOLERANCE

drought tolerance aprox 5 months

ORIGIN

origin mediterranean basin

Mediterranean Spurge Scientific name

  • Botanical name: Euphorbia characias (yoo-FOR-bee-uh kuh-RAY-see-us)
  • Family:  Euphorbiaceae (yoo-for-bee-AY-see-ee)
  • Common name:  Mediterranean Spurge
NameMeaning
EuphorbiaDerives from “Euphorbus”, the name of the greek physician of King Juba II (52-50 BC to 23 AD), who is believed to have used euphorbia plants for medicinal purposes.
characiasDerives from the Greek word “xaraxias” and was first used to identify the plant by Dioscorides (Greek physician, pharmacologist, botanist) in the 1st century AD.

How to identify Euphorbia characias

Euphorbia characias plant (Mediterranean Spurge)

Plant

Euphorbia characias is an evergreen multi-stemmed subshrub that forms a rounded shape.  Its stems are upright or slightly reclining and emerge from the base of the plant, covered with blue-green leaves and topped with striking yellow-green cylindrical inflorescences.

It’s worth noting that Euphorbia characias produces a milky sap when its stems or leaves are broken. This sap can irritate the skin and cause discomfort, so handling the plant carefully and using protective gear is essential.

The plant has an average height of 80 cm (2.6 ft)  and a width of 60 to 80 cm (2 to 2.6  ft).

The subspecies Wulfenii (Euphorbia characias subsp. Wulfenii), previously known as Euphorbia Wulfenii) is larger, reaching a height of 1 to 1.5 m (3.2 to 5 ft) and spread of 1.25 (4 ft)

Euphorbia characias stem (Mediterranean Spurge)

Stem

Euphorbia characias stems are purplish-green, erect, and hairy. The upper stem is usually green and covered with a spiral of blue-green leaves turned downwards, while the lower part is woody, naked and scarred from previously shed leaves.

Atop the stems grow yellow cylindrical inflorescences, but what appear to be flower petals are actually bracts.

Each stem lives for only two years. During the first year, it will grow and only produce leaves, while in the second year it flowers, and then dries out completely after flowering.

Make sure to handle the stems of Euphorbia characias with care because the leaves release a milky sap when broken. This sap can irritate your skin and cause discomfort.

Euphorbia characias leaf (Mediterranean Spurge)

Leaf

The leaf is fleshy and hairy. The colour is bluish or greyish-green turning yellow-green in Autumn

It is simple with a lanceolate pointed shape and a slightly revolute margin.

The leaf length is, on average, 2 to 9 cm  (0.8 to 3.5 in) long. 

Euphorbia characias flower (Mediterranean Spurge)

Flower

The inflorescence is large, cylindrical and consists of several yellow-green cyathia with a dark red border.

A cyathium is a specialized flower structure in the Euphorbiaceae family, consisting of an involucre, staminate flowers, and a pistillate flower. 

At the centre, there is a single female flower, the pistillate flower, consisting of a single ovary on a stalk (pedicel). Surrounding the pistillate flower are several male flowers called staminate flowers. 

The pistillate and staminate are enclosed in a cup-shaped involucre, formed by a whorl of connected colourful bracts, with small dark reddish-brown glands on the border. This is what gives the appearance of dark red eyes in the flower head.

The involucre has two colourful bracts at its base, which most people think are the flower’s petals.

The flowers start blooming in late winter and continue until early summer. 

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    Euphorbia characias Habitat

    Euphorbia characias is native to the Mediterranean region, including southern Europe, North Africa, and parts of the Middle East.

    Its natural habitat typically includes rocky, dry, and well-drained soils, and is often found in open woodland, scrubland, and rocky hillsides.

    Euphorbia characias Usage

    Ornamental

    Mediterranean Spurge can be a wonderful addition to a garden. Its distinctive features make it an appealing visual element. It can be successfully used in the following ways:

    1- Accent plant,  due to its distinctive shape, texture and showy flowers.

    2- In any style of xeriscape, due to its drought tolerance and ability to thrive in poor soil conditions. When planted among rocks and gravel, it creates a naturalistic display.

    3- In containers, making it a versatile option for patios, balconies, or small gardens. Its architectural form can make a statement when placed in a stylish container.

    4- Edging or border plant along garden borders or pathways to create a defined edge. Its low-growing habit and neat appearance can help provide structure and delineation in the garden.

    Remember to consider the growth habits and requirements of Euphorbia characias when selecting its placement in the garden. Ensure it has adequate space to grow, and keep in mind its potential spread and height to prevent overcrowding.

    Also, be cautious when handling the plant because, like some other Euphorbia species, its milky sap can cause skin irritation.

    Medicinal

    Euphorbia characias L. was used to treat wounds and warts in folk medicine (source).

    Biodiversity

    Euphorbia flowers attract many insects and pollinators such as bees, butterflies, hoverflies, and beetles.This plant is a valuable addition to the biodiversity of your garden and is ideal for wildlife gardens.

    How to care for Euphorbia characias

    Cold exposure

    This plant is moderately frost hardy and tolerates temperatures down to -12ºC (10ºF) as long as the soil is well drained. Cold and humid soil can be fatal to it.

    In colder regions, where temperatures can drop below freezing, Euphorbia characias may experience some frost damage. However, it can typically recover and regrow from the base or lower parts of the plant.

    Add a thick layer of mulch to shelter the roots from low temperatures. It is best to use gravel but you can also opt for bark or wood chips.

    Sun exposure

    Euphorbia characias prefers full sun. It thrives in bright, direct sunlight and can tolerate intense heat. Providing it with at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day is ideal for its growth and overall health.

    In areas with extremely hot climates or intense sunlight, some protection from the afternoon sun may be beneficial to prevent leaf scorch. Providing partial shade during the hottest part of the day can help protect the plant from excessive heat and intense sunlight.

    Soil

    It prefers well-drained stony, or sandy soils. It dislikes soggy soil, which makes it more exposed to fungal diseases that cause root rot. So avoid planting it in places where moisture is stagnant.

    It grows well in most types of soils: mildly acidic, neutral and mildly alkaline.

    Watering

    Mediterranean Spurge is drought tolerant and can go for an extended period without water once it is established (about 5 months of drought if the temperature is not too hot). 

    Once established, it should not be watered in the summer because hot damp conditions may lead to fungal infections. However in prolonged drought or extremely hot weather, you will need to water it, but make sure the soil completely dries out between watering.

    During the first year after planting, you will need to water the young plant every two to three weeks during the summer. When the plant is young, the roots are still not established and will need this extra water until they grow more deeply and can get water on their own at the deeper levels of the soil.

    When watering it, you need to do it abundantly, giving the soil a generous soak so the water can penetrate deeply into the soil to allow its roots to grow deeply. Deep roots will allow the plant to survive longer periods of drought because the lower layers of the soil keep moist for more time.

    To preserve the soil´s moisture, you should add mulch around the root area of the plant. Gravel is the best option for mulching. 

    Pruning

    Although pruning Euphorbia characias is not mandatory, occasional pruning can help improve its appearance, control growth, and maintain a healthier plant.

    You may want to prune your Spurge for the following reasons:

    • To remove any dead or damaged parts 
    • Cut the old flowered stems down to the base in late summer or early autumn to allow new stems to grow more vigorously.

    Whenever touching your euphorbia plant, it is best to wear gloves to avoid skin irritation when touching the milky sap.

    Other Conditions

    Euphorbia characias is known to have some tolerance to salt spray. While it may not be as salt-tolerant as some other coastal plants, it can still handle moderate levels of salt in the air.

    When to plant Euphorbia characias

    The best season to plant Mediterranean spurge is typically in the spring or autumn, depending on your climate. It’s advisable to avoid planting during periods of extreme temperatures.

    If you live in a place with mild weather, it’s best to plant it in the autumn. This way, the plant can establish its roots during the cooler months before the summer heat arrives. On the other hand, if you experience harsh winters, it’s best to wait until spring when the risk of frost has passed and the soil has warmed up.

    How to propagate Euphorbia characias

    The best way to propagate Euphorbia characias, is from seed or stem cuttings in early spring.

    Once the plant is established, and if it is in the ideal conditions, it will self-seed. So if you want this to happen, don´t deadhead it after flowering.

    A good online source for plant propagation techniques can be found in RHS propagation article.

    If you prefer books, I can recommend the following:

    • Creative propagation: a grower’s guide by Thompson, Peter,
    • RHS Propagating Plants: How to Create New Plants For Free by Alan Toogood, Royal Horticultural Society

    Sources

    Sources of information used for this article

    Books

    I researched this plant in the following books, which I highly recommend you read. They won´t disappoint you!

    By clicking on the book images, you’ll be transported to the Amazon website. And here’s a little secret: when you purchase through these links, you support my work without any additional cost, enabling me to continue creating interesting content for you!

    Dry gardening bookcover of Dry gardening book
    cover of Field  Guidebook
    cover of RHS Propagation bookRHS Propagation book

    Internet

    Article from North Carolina Extension

    Article from Kew

    Article from Le Jardin Sec

    Vol VIII from FloraIberica

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