This is a very special plant that I have tried to grow back in Peterborough several times, with little success, but here in Wexford, and other parts of Ireland it is almost a weed. That sounds a bit far fetched but it does seed itself around and you see it in hedgerows where it has obviously planted itself so is commonly naturalised.
It is one of the shrubby euphorbias but while most hardy, shrubby euphorbias, such as E. wulfenii, are rather low slung with a woody base and biennial stems, this one is definitely shrubby and can, apparently, be tree-like. In common with those it does have unbranched, flowering shoots with a cluster of blooms at the end and the shoots die back after blooming, but it is a big boned shrub with real presence and is often recommended to give your garden a ‘tropical’ look.
Euphorbia mellifera is native to Madeira and apparently the Canary Islands (though I have never seen it on the three I have visited, not that that means a lot). It is worth a place in your garden for its attractive foliage, which is usually bright green with a pale midrib, and the domed clusters of flowers which literally drop nectar and are deliciously scented of honey. The fragrance is so strong that the air is scented around it. The blooms open (not that euphorbia flowers are ‘normal’ enough to be obvious when they are open) in March and usually last a month or more before the exploding seed pods are produced.
To quote from Curtis’s Magazine (Volume 32 – 1305, which I believe is from 1810): ‘The Euphorbia mellifera is a native of Madeira, whence it was introduced to the royal garden at Kew in 1784, by Mr. Masson. – The branches are well clothed with leaves, very much resembling those of the Oleander, and bear the flowers in panicles at their extremities. The name was given it from the extraordinary quantity of honey secreted by the petals, the odour of which spreads far around. – It requires to be carefully protected from frost.’*
And there lies the rub! This is not hardy in most parts of the UK except in very mild areas, including urban areas where hard frosts are rare. A mature plant can take a little frost and most references say it will take temperatures down to -5 but I am slightly doubtful about using that as a yardstick. Much depends on the site and the soil – obviously well drained or dry soils will help it survive cold. It is fairly good for a pot and then you can put it in a greenhouse in winter but do not leave it outside in a pot or the roots can get more of a chill than if it was growing in the ground.
Some references say that it needs protection from wind but, having seen this plant growing here very close to the sea I think that is an unnecessary warning. In fact I would say that it would be an excellent plant for a seaside garden.
In time, this can grow to about 3m high and wide but it is more normal to see it 1.5-2m high. The flowers vary in colour from greenish yellow to brown and I am pleased that, around here at least, most are this attractive brownish shade.
I have my eyes on a plant growing wild and will take some cuttings this week. It is supposed to be fairly easy to root if you let the cuttings stop bleeding latex for half a day. Pots with lots of perlite will be the order of the day I think, and removing most of the leaves. You can also grow it from seed but then you need to stratify them a bit, keeping them warm after sowing and then chilling for a few weeks before bringing them back into the warmth again.
All in all this is a funny old thing, and I can’t really define why it appeals to me so much. After all a rhododendron would look similar and be brighter in bloom. But I like the overall structure of the plant, love the early blooms and the amazing scent. And it is a bit of a challenge, which always makes a plant more attractive! If you have a mild garden then don’t delay – plant one today.
8/10 (a bit tender)
And most of all
Coarse language warning!
* Of course, the magazine does not put any of it quite like this because (joy of joys) just like Alice reading an old Bible in The Vicar of Dibley, the script is littered with ‘f’s! So another line states ‘ Except the figure in the Jardin de Malmaifon, published at Paris, under the aufpices of the Emprefs Jofephine, we know of no reprefenation of this plant.’
– I have an old vegetable book that describes how to propagate artichokes from suckers – my, how I laugh!
** It is not my fault the ‘ is missing in Patrick’s