Euphorbia Lactea is a fantastic plant, grown ornamentally in gardens in warm regions, and grown as a houseplant across the world.
While it looks like a cactus, it is a succulent shrub which will add a lot of form and personality into any landscape or interior, as long as you meet its needs.
Here’s what you need to know about this spectacular plant.
At a Glance: What You Should Know About Euphorbia Lactea
This beautiful plant has many names, including dragon bones, candelabra cactus, frilled fan, and the mottled spurge.
In its native habitat in parts of tropical Asia, it can grow to an impressive 15 feet tall, but when grown as a houseplant, this is more likely to be around 2 foot high.
You can recognize a dragon bones tree by its extremely prickly stems, the branches of the plant a vibrant green with white stripes down the middle.
In the height of summer, you may see very small leaves, but the plant soon drops them.
This particular euphorbia features a lot of spines (for something less spiny in the same family, you may want to try Euphorbia Resinifera), each one only reaching 5mm in length at a maximum. So you may want to be careful where you put this plant, or you may get attacked!
Like most plants in the euphorbia genus, if you injure a dragon bones tree, you’ll see a milky white latex ooze from the wound, which is toxic, and any contact should be avoided.
While this plant does produce flowers, they are infrequent and short-lived, but work well as a nice accent to the rest of the plant.
A Note on Toxicity
While I’ve briefly touched on it, the toxicity of this plant is harmful enough that it needs its own section in this article.
In other words, it’s not suitable for your household or garden if you have pets or children. While the appearance of the plant is enough to keep all but the most curious away, a glancing touch of the exterior will cause irritation.
The real danger is in the sap, however. Any kind of scrape to the plant will cause it to ooze out a toxic sap, which causes swelling and blisters on contact.
Ingesting any part of the plant won’t be a pleasant experience, and medical attention should be your first port of call if this is the case. Signs include vomiting, feeling sick or dizzy, and diarrhea.
Always wear gloves if you’re considering handling the plant or working around it, and don’t place it somewhere that gets a lot of foot traffic.
How to Grow a Euphorbia Lactea
Sometimes, when you look at a plant, you may assume from its elaborate appearance that it is difficult to care for. This euphorbia isn’t the easiest of plants to look after, but it’s far from the hardest.
The hardest work comes from trying to get a new dragon bones tree settled into its new home, as it will need some attention while its roots establish itself.
Sunlight and Soil Needs
If you’re growing your dragon bones tree indoors, it requires as much sunlight as possible, in well-draining soil.
A cacti or succulent compost mix will do fine, and you can improve the drainage by placing a layer of horticultural grit on the surface.
Ensure that this plant is away from drafts or radiators, as these will only cause problems. It requires a warm position in order to thrive.
Outdoors, the dragon bones tree can grow in a very sunny position, or in dappled shade. If you live somewhere where the sunlight isn’t particularly fierce, full sunlight will be more appreciated than shade.
However, full sunlight in a very hot location can cause sunburn to this particular euphorbia, so position it somewhere it can get some shade during the afternoon, otherwise you may see signs of scorching.
Outside, the dragon bones tree still requires soil that drains freely. When planting your dragon bones tree, you can add a layer of gravel into the bottom of the hole in order to help with drainage.
Make sure that the soil isn’t full of nutrients. Sounds odd, doesn’t it? When it comes to succulents (and cacti), the poorer the soil quality, the better these plants will grow.
If this doesn’t sound like the soil in your garden, you can grow this gorgeous plant in a container, using a succulent or cacti mix.
To create strong roots, mix in some grit with the soil, which will allow some air to get to the roots.
When to Water a Euphorbia Lactea
As with many succulent plants, watering a euphorbia lactea is a life or death situation. Give the plant too much water, and it’s bound to suffer from root rot, causing the plant to die.
This striking plant won’t tolerate wet soil, so water it during the early morning, so excess water has some time to evaporate.
To be safe, always check the soil before you water the plant, and let it mostly dry out before watering in the summer months, drastically reducing the amount of water you give the plant during the winter.
You may be able to get away with not watering the plant at all in the winter months, as many succulents can do without when they go dormant.
Should You Feed a Euphorbia Lactea?
You can feed your dragon bones tree if you like, but you’ll need to be careful how and when you do it, and what you use.
For best results, use a cacti and succulent fertilizer, following the instructions. Only feed your euphorbia lactea from spring into the first few weeks of autumn, and once a month will do perfectly.
If you’re using a liquid feed, make sure to fertilize the plant only when it needs watering, and do both at the same time, otherwise you risk burning the roots.
Avoid feeding the plant at all in winter.
Problems to Watch Out For
If your tough-looking dragon bones tree starts to turn a sickly yellow or brown instead of its usual vibrant green, your plant is telling you that you’re watering it wrong.
Any discoloration can be a sign of overwatering, and if this is the case, stop picking up that watering can. Hold off for at least ten days, and see if things improve.
If the soil is completely saturated, and your plant looks like it’s really suffering, it may be a good idea to repot it, holding off watering it once you’re done. This method doesn’t always work, and it is a last resort.
If your plant starts to wilt and the foliage and stems are wrinkling, your plant needs a drink. It isn’t dying for one, but it’s not that far off. Give it a good drink, and it should pick up again in no time.
If you see brown spots appearing on your euphorbia, and you have it in a position where it gets full sunlight, it’s probably sunburned.
If you’ve only bought the plant recently, this suggests that its previous home wasn’t as bright as its new position.
When introducing plants to new conditions, it greatly helps if you can do so gradually. This gives the plant a chance to adapt properly.
Bring it out in direct sunlight – not midday sun, morning or afternoon sunlight – for a few hours each day, gradually increasing the time over a week or so.
Sunburn may also occur on a euphorbia if there’s mist or dew in the autumn months, and the sun magnifies these water droplets and burns the plant.
If you’re bringing your indoor euphorbia outside for the summer months, make sure you introduce it gradually to give it a chance to cope.
As the dragon bones tree is a succulent plant, it’s resistant to drought as it keeps its own water reserves.
This does cause issues if improper watering occurs, as the plant is susceptible to root rot if you overwater it.
If you water the plant too much or too often, or a combination of the two, the roots will be affected by disease, as the water cannot drain away quick enough for them.
Root rot turns the roots soft, mushy, and dark. This will start to starve the dragon bones tree of essential nutrients in the soil, and if you don’t do something quick, the plant will die.
Repotting your dragon bones tree is the only way to save it, and this is if you catch the problem early enough. By the time you’ve noticed the stems going soft and discolored, it may be too late.
Before you transfer the euphorbia into its new home, prune any diseased roots, making sure to clean your secateurs thoroughly.
Grab a clean, barely-damp sponge, and clean the surviving roots to get rid of any lingering infection. Repot your plant, holding off on watering it for a while until it recovers.
Root rot is one of the few diseases that you can avoid entirely, by only watering the plant when it needs it, and not before.
Powdery mildew can be a concern for euphorbia lactea, whether you choose to grow it indoors or outdoors.
With powdery mildew, this is most typically an issue when there’s not enough airflow around the plant, and you’ll soon see a powdery, off-white coating covering the plant.
If left untreated, this can greatly impact the health of your plant, leading to other issues, and eventually, plant death.
A good way to remove it without causing any damage to your euphorbia is to apply a solution of baking soda and water to your plant. The easiest way to apply it is in a spray bottle.
Make sure to wipe it off your plant, and the powdery mildew should come away with it. You may have to do this more than once if it’s a particularly bad infection.
Luckily, this disease is not only treatable, it’s easily preventable, too. To keep powdery mildew away, give your plant enough room.
Make sure it’s in a well-ventilated space, whether that’s outside or inside, and don’t crowd your plants too closely together.
While you won’t be able to spot a spider mite just with your eyes, you’ll be able to see the damage they leave behind.
These tiny terrors feed on the nutrients in the stems of the plant, which greatly weakens it. You’ll also notice tiny webbing on the plant, which can also cause fungal infection.
To get rid of spider mites, you could use an insecticide, but this particular plant can suffer with harsh chemicals.
You can either use a hose to spray them off the plant, making sure that there’s no lingering drops of water left on the plant, or you can use a solution of neem oil and water to get rid of them.
Mealybugs are also a common pest, whether you choose to grow your dragon bones tree indoors or outdoors.
They feed on the sap contained in the plant – surprisingly, when you think that the sap is incredibly harmful – and weaken the plant considerably.
The best way to deal with mealybugs is to use a solution of rubbing alcohol and water, applying it with cotton buds. Make sure to wear gloves, not only to protect your hands from the solution, but also from the plant!
You can also use a mixture of water and neem oil to keep pests away.
Euphorbia Lactea Varieties to Grow Yourself
Euphorbia Lactea Cristata ‘Crested Euphorbia’
This is an interesting form of Euphorbia lactea, instantly recognizable for its fan shaped branches and crested leaves.
It also features the bright green branches of a normal euphorbia lactea, striped with pale yellow or light green.
You’ll see it labeled as the crested elkhorn, the crested candelabra, or mistakenly, the coral cactus.
It’s often grafted onto the base of a different euphorbia, Euphorbia neriifolia, to give it a unique, single-stemmed look contrasting well with the shell-shaped leaves.
Grafted plants are usually unstable to some degree when it comes to succulents and cacti, as the two plants chosen don’t always have the same rate of growth, causing problems for later.
When grafted, the euphorbia neriifolia may start producing more than one branch, but you can easily prune this (wear gloves!) if you prefer the single-stemmed look.
Euphorbia Lactea Variegata ‘Variegated Euphorbia’
As if the original version of this plant wasn’t striking enough, the variegated cultivars really bring out the unusual form, highlighting the shape of the branches with pink, purple, or white.
The most color tends to form on the tops of the branches, staying bright green the closer to the base of the plant.
You can also get the crested version of the dragon bones tree in different colors, typically grown in the grafted form to really show it off.
Euphorbia Lactea ‘White Ghost’
‘White Ghost’ is still a variegated form of the dragon bones tree, but instead of producing a different color on top of its bright green, nearly the entire plant is a very pale green or even white.
There is a drawback to this stunning plant, however. Remember how the normal form of the dragon bones tree is vulnerable to sunburn?
With this unusual, pale color, this version of the plant is extremely vulnerable to sun damage, so you will need to keep it in dappled shade at the most.
If you’re growing your ghost euphorbia lactea inside, keep it in a bright, indirect position, making sure there’s no chance of the sun shining directly on the plant, otherwise it will scorch the leaves.