The fiery Firesticks Succulent (Euphorbia Tirucalli)

At first sight, this succulent seems like a colony of mollusks that escaped from the corals of the Great Barrier Reef. Euphorbia tirucalli (or Firesticks as it is affectionately known) is a conspicuous gold, reddish-orange, and light green succulent, with tentacle-like branches each about the width of a pencil, sticking out in all directions.

This hardy evergreen has internal survival skills and can endure some of the most unforgiving natural habitats. One branch in a neglected area can quickly turn into an endless garden of Firesticks. This succulent is a brilliant burglar deterrent, and at the same time, its poisonous latex can be used to make fuel. It is fairly famous in the medical field as a traditional remedy and trusted by farmers as an affordable substitute for cattle feed. 

With such good looks and curious characteristics, the Euphorbia tirucalli can be labeled as a thriller succulent.

The Firesticks succulent is a temperate climate native

This shrub is indigenous to the semi-arid and tropical climates of central, northeastern, and southern Africa, with more than 200 species inhabiting the provinces of Mpumalanga, KwaZulu Natal, Gauteng, Limpopo, and Eastern Cape. Bound to its roots in Africa, this plant has cleverly evolved over time to discourage antelopes, elephants, and giraffes from chewing on it. Its preference for black clay soils has seen it sprout in the Arabian Peninsula, Sri Lanka, India, Vietnam, Brazil, and the Philippines.

Firesticks draw you in like a magnet, with its thicket of loose branching, brightly colored stems. The thin pencil-like stems flaunt a reddish-gold tint during the winter which brightens up into a yellow hue in the summer. This color change has earned Euphorbia tirucalli its informal names of Sticks of Fire, Red Pencil Tree, Pencil Cactus, Indian Tree Spurge, Naked Lady, Milk Bush, Euphorbia rhipsaloides, Euphorbia viminalis, and Rubber Hedge Euphorbia.

Behold this stunning architectural succulent

This shrub uses its cylindrical, glabrous-green stems for photosynthesis and on average can grow 8-10 ft. (2.4-3 m.) tall and 5 inches (1.5 m) wide. The stems grow either alternately or opposite each other occurring in hanging groups that give it a rather untidy appearance on the crowns. The older the plant grows, the harder the stems become, creating a fairly impenetrable thicket.

Firesticks develop tiny, inconspicuous leaves that drop off as soon as they pop out. It bears clusters of yellow flowers between September and December that birds, bees and butterflies are heavily attracted to. In November and December, this plant produces pale green fruits that are divided into three parts with soft hairs around it. The fruits have dark brown oval seeds that birds, ants and monkeys are particularly fond of.

Appearances can be deceiving

As outstanding as this plant looks in a floral display, every part of the Firesticks succulent is highly toxic. A slight bruise will cause this extremely sensitive plant to squirt a venomous white latex sap known to cause an anaphylactic reaction in people allergic to latex.

When in contact with skin, this sap causes a burning sensation, a rash, redness, or severe irritation. When digested, it burns the mouth, lips, and tongue, causing serious intestinal injuries to curious cats and dogs. It is highly advised to wear full-body protective clothing, gloves, and goggles when handling this plant. Worst-case scenario, if it gets to your eyes, it can lead to blindness.

The sap behaves like glue when in contact with surfaces; it dries clear. It is important to thoroughly clean any gardening tools that came in contact with the plant as the colorless trace residue can still cause irritation. In a home environment, this plant should be positioned away from areas with a lot of foot traffic, inquisitive children, and curious pets.

Likes and Dislikes of the Firestick succulent

This drought-resilient succulent is an avid sun worshiper, preferring outdoor areas with full sunlight. Firesticks thrive in warm climates and are comfortable growing in USDA Hardiness Zones 10-11. This plant can tolerate mild frost but will struggle in temperatures below 30 °F (-1.1 °C). Indoor plants do well besides a sun-facing window or under direct bright light in a conservatory.

The Firestick succulent is not fussy about where it buds. It has been spotted in various habitats, prospering on rocky outcrops and ridges, along river courses and on open savanna grasslands. Its basic requirement is well-draining soil like sandy soil or cactus potting mix.

The Euphorbia tirucalli’s grooming needs are minimal. It will do with a splash of well-diluted liquid fertilizer once or twice throughout Spring. It naturally grows upright and does not develop debris at the base of the plant. Firesticks are salt-tolerant and are exceptionally resistant to deer, rabbit, and most pests and diseases.

Euphorbia tirucalli is not a big drinker. It grows well with some water every 7-10 days during the summer and once every 3 weeks in autumn. This succulent can comfortably scale through a full winter without water because it goes dormant.

This plant likes the topsoil to be completely dry before watering. If the leaves start to look translucent and feel mushy, the plant is getting too much water that can lead to root rot and kill the plant. The leaves will appear droopy, shriveled and deflated if the plant is not getting enough water. As much as it likes the sun, this succulent is still prone to sunburn in intense weather conditions like heat waves.

The deadly but useful Firestick succulent

As dangerous as this plant seems, it does have some benefits. It gets the name Rubber Head Euphorbia referring to its widespread use as planted hedges around homes and livestock pens to keep out intruders.

Various cultures around the world have embraced the Firestick succulent as an alternative medicine to treat tumors, asthma, ear and toothaches. It is believed to be an antidote for snakebites and regarded as a cure for sexual impotence in some societies.

The Firestick succulent has proven its worth as a hydrocarbon plant with the ability to produce products similar to petroleum. The American biochemist Melvin Ellis Calvin dedicated his time into exploiting oil production from the plant’s latex to produce fuel.

Whether planted alone in a whimsical pot or adorning the edges of a Mediterranean rock garden, Firesticks are a statement succulent that should be seen but rarely touched.

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