The genus Euphorbia includes a large and diverse group of plants, ranging from petite annuals to huge, long-lived trees, and includes plants as diverse as the much-loved Christmas poinsettia (E. pulcherimma) and the cactus-like crown of throns (E. milii). Sometimes called “spurge,” all euphorbias share the qualities of being remarkably rugged, easy-to-grow plants that are heat and drought tolerant and deer and gopher proof. Pests of all types tend to avoid euphorbias due to the fact they have a caustic, milky, white, latex-like sap (so handle with care and do your research before pruning). Euphorbias also have unusual and unique floral structures that are filled with pollinator-attracting nectar. Some varieties are larval host plants for various butterfly species. Many euphorbias are perfect for the Northern California garden, particularly those plagued by deer or gophers. They’re wonderfully ornamental, will brighten up the garden all year long, and flower in late winter and early spring before anything else starts blooming. Here are a few of my favorites.
Diamond Frost® euphorbia
(Euphorbia hypericifolia ‘Inneuphe’, Zones 10–11)
Airy clouds of frosty white blooms cover the 12- to 18-inch-tall-and-wide, rounded mound of shamrock-green foliage of this plant almost nonstop from spring through fall. Delicate only in appearance, Diamond Frost® is easy enough for a beginner to grow and makes an excellent addition to any sunny border or container, either on its own or in mixed combinations. It’s long-blooming, deer-resistant and astonishingly low maintenance, with no deadheading even required. This fluffy marvel prefers a full sun to partial shade location (though it blooms better in full sun) and regular to light watering.
‘Miners Merlot’ euphorbia
(Euphorbia ‘Miner’s Merlot’, Zones 7–9)
The deep, dark, green-burgundy leaves of this vigorous grower are incredibly interesting and become even more intensely burgundy during summer. New growth emerges in stunning hues of merlot red, contrasting gorgeously with the lime green flower heads that top the foliage in early spring and linger on through summer. Offering dramatic color all year long either alone, mass planted, or in mixed combinations, ‘Miner’s Merlot’ forms a dense, rounded mound 18 to 24 inches tall and wide when grown in full sun to partial shade with light to average water.
‘Ascot Rainbow’ euphorbia
(Euphorbia × martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow’, Zones 6–11)
This sturdy, mounding, evergreen is a highly ornamental perennial offering a vibrant interplay of color all year long. Each golden-edged, sage-green leaf appears to be brushed with tangerine, peach, and fuchsia highlights, with the colors intensifying as temperatures dip. Not only is it uniquely variegated all year long, but it also develops spectacular and long-lasting cream-chartreuse-crimson flower bracts in early spring to add to the attraction! This pest-proof, heat- and drought-tolerant beauty grows 18 to 24 inches tall and a little wider in full sun with average to little water.
(Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii, Zones 7–10)
Evergreen, drought tolerant and appealing all year long, this sturdy euphorbia has upright stems clothed in whorls of blue-green foliage. Chartreuse blooms show up in winter when little else is adding excitement to the garden. This low-maintenance perennial (simply deadhead when the blooms are spent) is pest proof and drought tolerant. In fact, it’s so easily maintained, renowned horticulturalist Gertrude Jekyll deemed it “a most pictorial plant.” Reaching 3 to 4 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide, Mediterranean euphorbia does best in full sun to partial shade with light irrigation during the warmest months.
‘Tiny Tim’ euphorbia
(Euphorbia × martinii ‘Tiny Tim’, Zones 6–10)
This is a dense, compact, upright-growing yet short little cultivar with evergreen, crimson-blushed green foliage. The leaves are carried in whorls on sturdy red stems and give way to chartreuse blooms, each one featuring a bright red eye. The bloom display begins in late fall or early winter and continues through early spring, leading to the only maintenance (deadheading to the base of the flowering stalk) you’ll ever have to do. This is a pest-proof, rugged little perennial. Great in containers or out in the landscape, either grown as a specimen or in combinations, ‘Tiny Tim’ grows 8 to 12 inches tall and wide, and does well with full sun or filtered bright light with regular to light watering.
Read more about euphorbias here.
—Fionuala Campion is the owner and manager of Cottage Gardens of Petaluma in Petaluma, California.
Photos: Fionuala Campion