It is curious that, despite the fact that they have tiny flowers and that many are weeds, there are very few euphorbias that I find ugly. They famously have lime green bracts around the strange, small flowers but they are much more than that. Even the weeds such as E. peplus, which is such a nuisance, is actually very pretty. But enough of my strange predilections – back to proper plants.
One of the best of all is Euphorbia characias, the Mediterranean, shrubby species with biennial stems, that terminate in a long cluster of bracts at this time of year, just as new shoots appear at the base to repeat the show next year. Now that the taxonomy is settled, var. characias has yellow ‘eyes’ to the flowers and var. wulfenii has black eyes: I prefer the former. It is a plant for dry, sunny soils and will often self seed in gravel or any other baked place. There is considerable variation among what you can buy or will find among seedlings, and some of the best are flushed with purple on the young leaves.
And, of course, variegated shoots have appeared now and then and propagated and named. Although the species can reach 1.2m high and almost as much wide the variegated selections are usually significantly smaller. This is ‘Tasmanian Tiger’ which is bright all year. The grey leaves are lavishly edged with creamy yellow, deeper on the young leaves and fading to cream as they age which seems to suit the bottle-brush look of the plant. The real treat comes when it blooms, the bracts being pure creamy yellow, occasionally flecked with grey-green. The flower heads are not as massive as the green forms but they are really bright in the garden.
As soon as the heads start to look scruffy, cut off the whole stem to allow space for the new stems. This keeps the plants tidy and also prevents aphids infesting the old blooms. If you want to propagate your plant, now is the time to look for those shoots at the base and remove them to root. They are best when less than 15cm long (take off the tips if they are) and with a bit of the old stem at the base. Be careful when cutting euphorbias to avoid skin contact with the sap.