Find gardening success with euphorbias

Find gardening success with euphorbias

by Pat Munts

Spring is busting out over the Pacific Northwest. Daffodils and tulips are at their peak and other spring flowers aren't far behind.

All the spring color is great, but wouldn't it be fun to spice up the garden pallet with something different? How about something blooming in screaming chartreuse or an equally hot orange? What if this departure from boring also followed its flowers with showy, easy-care evergreen foliage the rest of the season? If so, look no further than euphorbia.

For Laura Altvater, a manager at highly rated Portland Nursery's Stark Street location in Portland, Ore., euphorbias are one of the most under-used plants in the garden when it comes to color and form. "There's a type of euphorbia for every place in the garden," she says. "We put them on our 'good for beginning gardeners' list."

Think you're not familiar with euphorbias? Think again. You may still have one left over from Christmas that you just can't bear to throw out. The traditional poinsettia is a member of the euphorbia species. A common name for them is "spurge."

Euphorbias are great selections for gardens, both east and west of the Cascades, though east-side gardeners will need to choose hardy varieties. An evergreen mounding habit makes them easy to use in any garden bed. Leaf colors vary from soft greens to dark reds, with a good selection of variegated foliage in shades of green, cream, red and pink. Flowers range from chartreuse to orange to white.

They grow well in any well-drained soil and are drought tolerant once established. They have few, if any, insect or disease issues. Some varieties are tolerant of partial shade while others thrive in hot sunny spots. According to Altvater, all they need in the spring is a little compost. They even look great in container plantings. Probably, one of their biggest assets though, is that they're fairly deer resistant — even in areas with high deer numbers.

The colorful parts of the plant we think of as the flowers are actually bracts. The flowers are very inconspicuous at the center of the bracts. "One lady told me the flowers resembled miniatures of Shrek's ears (the movie character)," says Altvater.

Other popular euphorbias include euphorbia polychroma, which blooms a chartreuse followed by a well behaved 18-inch mound of light green to reddish-green leaves, depending on the variety.

Varieties "Blackbird" and "Ruby Glow" follow their bright yellow blooms with wonderful displays of deep purple foliage. "Ruby Glow" has a touch of pink at its leaf tips. "Ascot Rainbow" and "Helena's Blush" form upright clumps of variegated green and cream leaves with a touch of red at the leaf tips. If silver and blue are your colors, try "Glacier Blue" or "Tasmanian Tiger" with silver and cream variegation and cream colored blooms.

A note of caution - the sticky milky sap of the plant can be irritating if it comes into contact with your skin and eyes, so wear gloves and long sleeves when working with euphorbias.

Pat Munts grew up in western Washington but has spent the last 30 years gardening on the dry east side of the state near Spokane. She freelances for the Spokesman-Review and has served as eastern Washington editor for Master Gardener Magazine. She's the small farms coordinator for both WSU Spokane County Extension and the Spokane County Conservation District.

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