and see below
c. 2008 species
Euphorbia as a small tree:
Euphorbia is a very large and diverse genus of flowering plants,
commonly called spurge, in the spurge family (Euphorbiaceae).
"Euphorbia" is sometimes used in ordinary English to collectively
refer to all members of
Euphorbiaceae (in deference to the type
genus), not just to members of the genus. Some euphorbias are
commercially widely available, such as poinsettias at Christmas. Some
are commonly cultivated as ornamentals, or collected and highly valued
for the aesthetic appearance of their unique floral structures, such
as the crown of thorns plant (
Euphorbia milii). Euphorbias from the
deserts of Southern
Madagascar have evolved physical
characteristics and forms similar to cacti of North and South America,
so they (along with various other kinds of plants) are often
incorrectly referred to as cacti. Some are used as ornamentals in
landscaping, because of beautiful or striking overall forms, and
drought and heat tolerance.
Euphorbias range from tiny annual plants to large and long-lived
trees. The genus has over or about 2,000 members, making it
one of the largest genera of flowering plants. It also has one
of the largest ranges of chromosome counts, along with
Euphorbia antiquorum is the type species for the genus
Euphorbia. It was first described by
Carl Linnaeus in 1753 in
The plants share the feature of having a poisonous, milky, white,
latex-like sap, and unusual and unique floral structures. The genus
may be described by properties of its members' gene sequences, or by
the shape and form (morphology) of its heads of flowers. When viewed
as a whole, the head of flowers looks like a single flower (a
pseudanthium). It has a unique kind of pseudanthium, called a
cyathium, where each flower in the head is reduced to its barest
essential part needed for sexual reproduction. The individual
flowers are either male or female, with the male flowers reduced to
only the stamen, and the females to the pistil. These flowers have
no sepals, petals, or other parts that are typical of flowers in other
kinds of plants. Structures supporting the flower head and beneath
have evolved to attract pollinators with nectar, and with shapes and
colors that function the way petals and other flower parts do in other
flowers. It is the only genus of plants that has all three kinds of
photosynthesis, CAM, C3, and C4.
The genus can be found all over the world. The forms range from
annual plants laying on the ground, to well-developed tall trees.
In deserts in
Madagascar and southern Africa, convergent evolution has
led to cactus-like forms where the plants occupy the same ecological
niche as cacti do in deserts of North and South America. The genus
is primarily found in the tropical and subtropical regions of Africa
and the Americas, but also in temperate zones worldwide.[citation
Succulent species originate mostly from Africa, the Americas,
and Madagascar. A wide range of
insular species can be found.
1 Misidentification as cacti
3.1 Inflorescence and fruit
3.2 Xerophytes and succulents
4 Systematics and taxonomy
4.1 Selected species
6 Further reading
7 External links
Misidentification as cacti
Euphorbia species are among the most commonly
confused plant taxa with cacti, especially the stem succulents.
Euphorbias secrete a sticky, milky-white fluid with latex, but cacti
do not. Individual flowers of euphorbias are usually tiny and
nondescript (although structures around the individual flowers may not
be), without petals and sepals, unlike cacti, which often have
fantastically showy flowers. Euphorbias from desert habitats with
growth forms similar to cacti have thorns, which are different from
the spines of cacti.
The common name "spurge" derives from the Middle English/Old French
espurge ("to purge"), due to the use of the plant's sap as a
purgative. The botanical name
Euphorbia derives from Euphorbos, the
Greek physician of king
Juba II of
Numidia (52–50 BC –
23 AD), who married the daughter of Anthony and Cleopatra.
Juba was a prolific writer on various subjects, including natural
history. Euphorbos wrote that one of the cactus-like euphorbias (now
Euphorbia obtusifolia ssp. regis-jubae) was used as a powerful
laxative. In 12 BC, Juba named this plant after his physician
Augustus Caesar had dedicated a statue to the brother of
Euphorbos, Antonius Musa, who was the personal physician of
Augustus. In 1753, botanist and taxonomist
Carl Linnaeus assigned
Euphorbia to the entire genus in the physician's honor.
The plants are annual or perennial herbs, woody shrubs, or trees with
a caustic, poisonous milky latex. The roots are fine or thick and
fleshy or tuberous. Many species are more or less succulent, thorny,
or unarmed. The main stem and mostly also the side arms of the
succulent species are thick and fleshy, 15–91 cm
(6–36 in) tall. The deciduous leaves may be
opposite, alternate, or in whorls. In succulent species, the leaves
are mostly small and short-lived. The stipules are mostly small,
partly transformed into spines or glands, or missing.
Inflorescence and fruit
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Like all members of the family Euphorbiaceae, spurges have unisexual
In Euphorbia, flowers occur in a head, called the cyathium (plural
cyathia). Each male or female flower in the cyathium head has only its
essential sexual part, in males the stamen, and in females the pistil.
The flowers do not have sepals, petals, or nectar to attract
pollinators, although other nonflower parts of the plant have an
appearance and nectar glands with similar roles. Euphorbias are the
only plants known to have this kind of flower head.
Nectar glands and nectar that attract pollinators are held in the
involucre, a cuplike part below and supporting the cyathium head. (The
"involucre" in the
Euphorbia genus is not to be confused with the
"involucre" in Asteraceae family members, which is a collection of
bracts called (phyllaries), which surround and encase the unopened
flower head, then support the receptacle under it after the flower
The involucre is above and supported by bract-like modified leaf
structures (usually in pairs) called cyathophylls',
or cyathial leaves. The cyathophyll often has a superficial appearance
of being petals of a flower.
Euphorbia flowers are tiny, and the variation attracting different
pollinators (and the human eye), with different forms and colors
occurs, in the cyathium, involucre, cyathophyll, or additional parts
such as glands that attached to these.
The collection of many flowers may be shaped and arranged to appear
collectively as a single individual flower, sometimes called a
pseudanthium in the Asteraceae, and also in Euphorbia.
The majority of species are monoecious (bearing male and female
flowers on the same plant), although some are dioecious with male and
female flowers occurring on different plants. It is not unusual for
the central cyathia of a cyme to be purely male, and for lateral
cyathia to carry both sexes. Sometimes, young plants or those growing
under unfavorable conditions are male only, and only produce female
flowers in the cyathia with maturity or as growing conditions
The female flowers reduced to a single pistil usually split into three
parts, often with two stigmas at each tip. Male
flowers often have anthers in twos.
usually occur in fives, may be as few as one, and may be fused
into a "U" shape. The cyathophylls often occur in twos, are
leaf-like, and may be showy and brightly coloured and attractive to
pollinators, or be reduced to barely visible tiny scales.[citation
The fruits are three- or rarely two-compartment capsules, sometimes
fleshy, but almost always ripening to a woody container that then
splits open, sometimes explosively. The seeds are four-angled, oval,
or spherical, and some species have a caruncle.
Xerophytes and succulents
In the genus Euphorbia, succulence in the species has often evolved
divergently and to differing degrees. Sometimes, it is difficult to
decide, and is a question of interpretation, whether or not a species
is really succulent or "only" xerophytic. In some cases, especially
with geophytes, plants closely related to the succulents are normal
herbs. About 850 species are succulent in the strictest sense. If one
includes slightly succulent and xerophytic species, this figure rises
to about 1000, representing about 45% of all
The milky sap of spurges (called "latex") evolved as a deterrent to
herbivores. It is white, and transparent when dry, except in E.
abdelkuri, where it is yellow. The pressurized sap seeps from the
slightest wound and congeals after a few minutes in air. The
skin-irritating and caustic effects are largely caused by varying
amounts of diterpenes. Triterpenes such as betulin and corresponding
esters are other major components of the latex. In contact with
mucous membranes (eyes, nose, mouth), the latex can produce extremely
painful inflammation. Therefore, spurges should be handled with
caution and kept away from children and pets.
Latex on skin should be
washed off immediately and thoroughly. Congealed latex is insoluble in
water, but can be removed with an emulsifier such as milk or soap. A
physician should be consulted if inflammation occurs, as severe eye
damage including permanent blindness may result from exposure to the
sap. When large succulent spurges in a greenhouse are cut, vapours
can cause irritation to the eyes and throat several metres away.
Precautions, including sufficient ventilation, are required.
Detail of poinsettia flowers and immature fruits
Several spurges are grown as garden plants, among them poinsettia (E.
pulcherrima) and the succulent E. trigona. E. pekinensis (Chinese:
大戟; pinyin: dàjǐ) is used in traditional Chinese medicine, where
it is regarded as one of the 50 fundamental herbs. Several Euphorbia
species are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera
(butterflies and moths), like the spurge hawk-moths (Hyles euphorbiae
and Hyles tithymali), as well as the giant leopard moth.
Ingenol mebutate, a drug used to treat actinic keratosis, is a
diterpenoid found in
Euphorbias are often used as hedging plants in many parts of
Systematics and taxonomy
Euphorbia corresponds to what was its own former subtribe, the
Euphorbiinae. It has over 2000 species.
Morphological description using the presence of a cyathium (see
section above) is consistent with nuclear and chloroplast DNA sequence
data in testing of about 10% of its members. This testing supports
inclusion of formerly other genera as being best placed in this single
genus, including Chamaesyce, Monadenium, Pedilanthus, and poinsettia
Genetic tests have shown that similar flower head structures or forms
within the genus, might not mean close ancestry within the genus. The
genetic data show that within the genus, convergent evolution of
inflorescence structures may be from ancestral subunits that are not
related. So using morphology within the genus becomes problematic for
further subgeneric grouping. As stated on the
Biodiversity Inventory project webpage -
Previous morphologically based delimitations of subgenera or sections
within the genus should not be taken at face value. The genus is in
fact rife with striking examples of morphological convergence in
cyathial and vegetative features, which justifies a global approach to
studying the genus to obtain a proper phylogenetic understanding of
the whole group.... The bottom line is that a number of clades have
been placed inside or outside of
Euphorbia at different times... few
of the subgeneric circumscriptions hold up under DNA sequence
According to a 2002 publication on studies of DNA sequence
data, most of the smaller "satellite genera" around the
Euphorbia nest deep within the latter. Consequently, these
taxa, namely the never generally accepted genus Chamaesyce, as well as
the smaller genera Cubanthus, Elaeophorbia, Endadenium,
Monadenium, Synadenium, and
Pedilanthus were transferred to Euphorbia.
The entire subtribe
Euphorbiinae now consists solely of the genus
List of Euphorbia species for complete list.
Euphorbia albomarginata – rattlesnake weed, white-margined sandmat
Euphorbia amygdaloides – wood spurge
Euphorbia antisyphilitica – candelilla
Euphorbia balsamifera – sweet tabaiba (Canary Islands)
Euphorbia canariensis – cardón (Canary Islands)
Euphorbia caput-medusae - Medusa's head (South Africa)
Euphorbia ceratocarpa (Sicily and southern Italy)
Euphorbia characias - Mediterranean spurge
Euphorbia cotinifolia - copper tree
Euphorbia cyparissias – cypress spurge
Euphorbia dendroides - tree spurge
Euphorbia epithymoides – cushion spurge
Euphorbia esula – leafy spurge
Euphorbia fulgens – scarlet plume
Euphorbia grandicornis –
Euphorbia with large horn
Euphorbia grantii – African milk bush
Euphorbia helioscopia – sun spurge
Euphorbia heterophylla – painted euphorbia, desert poinsettia,
fireplant, paint leaf, kaliko
Euphorbia horrida - African milk barrel
Euphorbia ingens - candelabra tree
Euphorbia lactea – mottled spurge, frilled fan, elkhorn
Euphorbia lathyris – caper spurge, paper spurge, gopher spurge,
gopher plant, mole plant
Euphorbia leuconeura –
Euphorbia maculata – spotted spurge, prostrate spurge
Euphorbia marginata – snow on the mountain
Euphorbia milii – crown-of-thorns, Christ plant
Euphorbia myrsinites – myrtle spurge, creeping spurge, donkey tail
Euphorbia paralias – sea spurge
Euphorbia pekinensis - Peking spurge
Euphorbia peplis – purple spurge
Euphorbia peplus – petty spurge
Euphorbia polychroma - bonfire
Euphorbia psammogeton – sand spurge
Euphorbia pulcherrima – poinsettia, Mexican flame leaf, Christmas
star, winter rose, noche buena, lalupatae, pascua, Atatürk çiçeği
Euphorbia resinifera – resin spurge
Euphorbia rigida – gopher spurge, upright myrtle spurge
Euphorbia serrata – serrated spurge, sawtooth spurge
Euphorbia tirucalli – Indian tree spurge, milk bush, pencil tree,
Euphorbia tithymaloides – devil's backbone, redbird cactus, cimora
Euphorbia trigona – African milk tree, cathedral cactus, Abyssinian
Euphorbia has been extensively hybridised for garden use, with many
cultivars available commercially. Moreover some hybrid plants have
been found growing in the wild, for instance E. × martini Rouy, a
cross of E. amygdaloides × E. characias subsp. characias, found in
Simplified diagram of relations in subtribe Euphorbiinae
Euphorbia is one of the largest and most complex genera of
flowering plants, and several botanists have made unsuccessful
attempts to subdivide the genus into numerous smaller genera.
According to the recent phylogenetic studies, Euphorbia
can be divided into four subgenera, each containing several not yet
sufficiently studied sections and groups. Of these, Esula is the most
Euphorbia are probably sister taxa, but very
closely related to Rhizanthium. Extensive xeromorph adaptations in all
probability evolved several times; it is not known if the common
ancestor of the cactus-like Rhizanthium and
Euphorbia lineages was
xeromorphic—in which case a more normal morphology would have
re-evolved namely in Chamaesyce—or whether extensive xeromorphism is
entirely polyphyletic even to the level of the subgenera.
Euphorbia meloformis ssp. valida
Euphorbia obesa ssp. symmetrica
Euphorbia attastoma var. attastoma
Euphorbia confinalis ssp. rhodesica
^ Euphorbia, Merriam Webster Dictionary
Cacti or Not? Many plants look like cacti but are not,
^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Project Page Introduction, Euphorbia
Biodiversity Inventory project, 
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^ a b c d What's the Difference Between
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Mountains. California Native
Plant Society. p. 107.
^ Linnaeus, Carl (1753). "Euphorbia".
Species Plantarum (1st ed.).
^ a b About the genus Euphorbia,
Euphorbia Planetary Biodiversity
Inventory project, 
^ a b
Euphorbia "Flowers," an introduction to the amazing Cyathia,
Geoff Stein, 4-22-2011, Dave's Garden, 
^ Research into
Euphorbia latex and irritant ingredients. Collected by
Dr. Richard J. Hodgkiss. Retrieved November 2, 2013.
^ Eke, Tom; Al-Husainy, Sahar; Raynor, Mathew K. (2000). "The spectrum
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Euphorbia plant sap" (PDF). Arch
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A selection of important / new literature
Flora Zambesiaca: Euphorbia
(in French) Institut de l’Information Scientifique et Technique