Splurge on spurge
Spurge is the common name for wild euphorbias - a little acid green plant common in some meadows and verges. They are members of a massive plant family which extends from a Christmas poinsettia to enormous, columnar cactuses. However, some species are extremely well suited to the poor, dry soils you find in many parts of France. We grow five species of them here in our garden and I am sure we have one or two interesting hybrids dotted around too as they can be susceptible to cross pollenation.
They flower in the spring and most of them set seed around now. If they are happy in their environment they will self seed prolifically and, while you do have the benefit of extra plants for free, they can also become a menace. The easiest thing to do to contain the problem is to dead head them before they start to shed their seeds. This is easier said than done because they can look particularly attractive as their seed heads mature. Normally I try to leave deadheading until as late as possible and my work is accompanied by a popping noise as the little seed heads explode - each one projecting three potential new plants into the surrounding garden.
Euphorbia rigida - shown in the lead photo - is my new favourite. Not invasive, a compact shape and pretty blue-grey colour, it is perfect as an anchor plant at the front of a dry, sunny border or in a gravel garden. I first saw this plant in Olivier Filippi’s Mediterranean garden, but find that it thrives in SW France as long as you plant it in a dry, sunny, sheltered position.
Euphorbia characias is known as the Mediterranean spurge, but will grow in cooler climates and can become an invasive monster growing to over a metre high. However, I love it, it is the first euphorbia I ever grew and was almost impossible to find here when we first moved to France. One day in Auch I found a market stall selling two varieties of characias - called Wulfenii and Portuguese Velvet. I bought one of each and have been inundated ever since. Recently I revisited our first house in France and saw one of Wulfenii’s offspring growing out of the top of the wall of a barn. How the seed found its way up there is a mystery, but looked great.
Euphorbia characias trying to take over a border this spring. I will remove it, rejuvenate the soil and replant with something else later this year.
Another extremely handy ‘filler’ plant is Euphorbia robbii. This likes cooler, shady conditions and works wonderfully under trees where the lack of moisture holds it in check. Plant it against a damp north facing wall and it will prove hard to control. Smaller and dark green in colour it makes excellent and quick ground cover in difficult situations.
This picture shows Euphorbis robbii flower stems, immediately after pruning. Note the sap. Don't let it come into s
contact with your skin.
A fourth example, and the smallest of the quartet, is Euphorbia myrsinites – or Corsican spurge. This pretty little plant loves hot, dry rocky or gravelly sites and will sprawl across the ground. I have one which winds through some small bearded iris tubers and they work well in their arid and somewhat unforgiving environment.
The flowering stems of Euphorbis myrsinites look wonderful when at their best, but they sprawl and become straggly. Cut them off and allow the plant to rejuvenate for next year.
The numerous flowers at the end of each of these Euphorbia flower stems come in a range of acid yellows – from chrome to almost green, although with other species – such as Euphorbia griffithii Fireglow – the inflorescences can be red or orange. To add to the interest the trio of seeds in their seed case can present complementary ‘eyes’ in the centre of each individual flower as they dry out – at which point you do need to consider pruning them. But when you do this take great care; wear gloves and long sleeves. All euphorbias exude a white, sticky, latex like sap. It can cause severe skin irritation which is exacerbated in sunlight. I know of one flower arranger who forgot what she was dealing with, wiped her eye and ended up in A&E.
This photograph shows an iris which I think is called Petit Louviot, an historic variety bred by the renowned Cayeux nursery. If you look closely at the Euphorbia seed heads you can see they mirror the colour of the iris flowers. This happy pairing occurred by chance - planning or good design had nothing to do with it.