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Crowning glory

August 17, 2014


While exotic species are to be discouraged as they offer unfair competition to our native species, some can be grown for being drought resistant

Having had a rather love/hate relationship with this indigenous Madagascar succulent, I have finally accepted it for exactly what, when correctly cared for, it is. This extremely drought resistant, ornamental plant has a wide variety of uses right throughout the length and breadth of the hot areas of this climatically diverse country.

One of the reasons for my personal dislike of this thorny customer being that ‘Crown-of-Thorns’, as it is commonly called, or Euphorbia millii to give it its botanical name, is an introduced plant which offers unfair competition to our native species which are increasingly outnumbered by exotics year by year. The basic drawback with imported plant species is that, besides having an in-built potential to unfairly compete — if they enjoy soil and climatic conditions in their new home — with native plants, very often, they have absolutely nothing to offer to our local bird, bee, butterfly and other insect species. These may not be attracted to them and even if they are, they find that due to different flower construction, they are unable to access the nectar offered to them by these strange species.

While exotic species are to be discouraged as they offer unfair competition to our native species, some can be grown for being drought resistant

Plants evolve to meet the localised environmental requirements of their native places over millions of years, developing, as they do so, in line with ease of access for local insect and other wild species. Taking Euphorbia millii as an example, environmental and wildlife requirements in Madagascar are very different from those of Pakistan, thus, they have a negative impact on the already highly threatened, natural environment here.

Having highlighted the above extremely important issue, to environmentalists at least, I will now move on to contradict myself by explaining how to cultivate and care for something which we, as a plant loving nation, should not, sensibly speaking, be growing at all but which, quite definitely and keeping water conservation in mind, is a boon for many ornamental gardens.

It’s one of just a very few succulents which can, with very little but necessary attention, be encouraged to flower almost all year round — with perhaps just a brief break in the colder months of December and January in the plains and coastal regions of the country. Crown-of-Thorns — yes it does have lots of extremely sharp, often long, thorns all around its fleshy stem — boasts an abundance of bright green leaves topped by blazing red, deep pink, pale pink, creamy yellow or white ‘bracts’ which are, as is the identical case with the popular Bougainvillea climber, usually referred to as ‘flowers’.

A mature specimen
A mature specimen

Crown-of-thorns relishes well drained, preferably very sandy, soil but performs equally well in stony ground too. Perfectly at home if grown directly in the ground or in clay pots or other decorative containers as long as the all important drainage is first class, this species is a sun-lover which basks in all the heat it can get. These growing conditions make it the perfect ornamental plant for exposed rooftops, ‘desert’ gardens, rockeries and other exposed places. It needs very little, if any, water once established and, even in its early days, is not at all partial to having very much to drink. It really comes into its own in heat and drought conditions.

Young plants tend to be smothered in leaves as well as ‘flowers’ whilst older ones get tall and leggy and are not so nice to look at as they have a bad habit of shedding their lower leaves to expose the thorny stems. The trick of keeping them full of leaves and ‘flowers’ both is, once they pass the 18 inches tall mark, to cut them back — wearing thick gloves so as not to get stabbed — to half of this height. This hard pruning encourages them to bush out, grow more leaves and produce an abundance of colourful bracts for months and months on end although, to be fair, they are at their best during late spring and on through the blistering heat of the summer months.

Easy to propagate from cuttings, these are best taken while pruning established plants back when they are between 18 inches to their maximum height of 2ft. Cuttings should be approximately six inches in length, longer prunings can be cut in half but should be no less than four inches long. The milky sap inside the fleshy stems is poisonous so please take care and wear gloves against both sap and thorns. Immediately after pruning, dip the bottom of the cut stems in medium to hot water as this stops the flow of sap. Lay the pieces on a newspaper, well away from children and pets, allow to dry for 24 hours and then insert them, to a depth of one inch, in well draining, sandy soil or cacti mix; water sparingly and the cuttings should develop a decent root system after about six weeks. Grow them on for another couple of months or so in individual clay pots and then they will be ready to plant out and enjoy.

A word of warning: Always handle with great care for the reasons mentioned above.

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Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 17th, 2014