THE AMATEURS' DIGEST
How Dangerous are Euphorbias?
(And Others in the Family Euphorbiaceae)
With some comments on dangerous plants in the families
Readers' Comments, Questions and Answers
Post-mortem examination of people killed by Euphorbia latex has revealed severe inflammation of the walls of the stomach and intestine and in some cases the wall of the stomach has been perforated. The poison is called euphorbon about which little is known.
There is no doubt about it. Many plants in the family Euphorbiaceae are dangerous if you handle them carelessly. In some cases, just one drop of latex on your skin can cause a rash the severity of which depends on how each individual reacts to it. If the white, milky latex touches a cut or sore or squirts into your eyes, you are courting trouble of major proportions.
The name Euphorbia is considered by many in South Africa as synonymous with poison.
Every spring when I repotted my plants, I had a very painful mess of tiny, hard bumps on my hands. They were not red and not blisters but so painful it felt like a hundred little razor blades were stuck in my skin. These hurt for a week or more and then disappeared as quickly as they had appeared. Last spring I repotted only my euphorbias and that's how I became aware they were the source of my problem. Whether one specific plant was responsible I don't know. And I don't plan to experiment further!
This experience prompted me to look for information on reactions to Euphorbia latex. The following awesome stories and other tidbits of information will, I hope, alert everyone to the real dangers of handling these plants without taking proper precautions.
Many euphorbias are used for medicinal and other good uses. But I found it interesting that a plant can be both helpful and toxic at the same time.
This plant is considered poisonous and has been used for homicidal purposes. In central Africa the latex is used as a purgative and as a caustic on skin lesions. On the other hand neither the latex nor the watery extract from it is toxic to guinea pigs when given by mouth.
A wax called Candelila is made from this Euphorbia. It is used in leather polishes and for waterproofing certain products. Mixed with rubber it is used for insulation, dental mouldings and is also used in sealing wax, metal lacquers, paint removers and lithographic colors. Mixed in paraffin it is used to make candles. It is not surprising therefore that the latex can cause skin problems.
A rather popular plant in our collections, the latex has been used as an application to help cancerous sores, cracked skin on the feet and various other skin disorders. However, the latex can be very dangerous depending on the dose given.
This is a Euphorbia sought after by many collectors. When you find one, be sure to remember if you get any amount of latex on your hands and then rub your eyes, your eyes could become inflamed. The inflammation can last several days.
The latex is very poisonous. It has been used to make poison arrows.
The latex may be highly acrid and irritating. Milking cows fed on the plant during drought were unable to give birth to normal calves due to deformities.
The latex is so irritant that a slight smear on the face or tender skin produces a blister within a short period. The latex is irritant to the eye and may result in blindness. If a person stands close to a bleeding plant, inhalation of the air from the neighborhood produces a burning sensation in the throat. Some Africans use the latex to poison fish. Apparently the fish rise, paralyzed but still breathing. They can then easily be caught and eaten with impunity.
The following are stories of what happened to people who came in contact with E. cooperi latex:
E. cooperi was growing in an outside garden. While a fellow was spading around other plants, the spade struck a root of this Euphorbia. White latex flew up into his eye. Almost immediately he was half-blinded and it took him a full two minutes to find a water tap where he ran water over his face and washed it into his eye with his hands. The eye was sore and red hot. He put his whole head under the running water but each time he stood up away from the water the pain became worse.
The idea popped into his head that maybe a wash with milk would be more soothing. Before he could reach the house to get to the milk the pain became too much to bear so back to the water tap he went for another drenching. Now the eye was closed and the other eye watering in sympathy.
Eventually he did get to the house and milk was used as a wash. There was no relief. He went back to the water tap. Then tried milk again. By now the other eye was also sore. It was presumed the running water had swept some latex from the one eye to the other. Even though diluted, it was still strong enough to cause considerable soreness when it trickled into the eye.
Bathing with milk continued and ice, wrapped in a hanky was placed over the now really red hot eyelids. The badly affected eye was red an puffy and unbearably irritating and the other eye very sore.
A doctor was consulted. He arranged for a prescription of a weak cortisone solution to be used every hour for four hours and then every four hours. The eye drops helped and so did pads of cotton wool soaked in witch hazel placed on the reddened eyelids.
The next morning, after a sleepless night, the latex affected eye had no vision except for a faint light. The other eye was better but still sore. It was easier to keep the affected one closed rather than try to open it. The hapless gardener described the feeling .. "It was as if acid had got into it."
By evening the worst eye began to make out outlines and shapes and shadows. A brown half-moon scarred the lower part of the eye below the pupil for 4mm in length.
On the second morning the doctor visited again and advised to continue with the drops. Clear sight had still not returned.
It was a full week before clear sight returned to the badly affected eye. There remained a faint brown stain which had grown larger, presumably where the latex had burned the eye.
In another story, the same Euphorbia cooperi was planted in a garden by a lady who carefully washed her hands after handling it and then made a meal for herself. Shortly after eating she developed a headache and felt sick. She lay down to rest and when she awoke she found that scabs had formed on her nose and mouth. This was all put down to the hands not being washed thoroughly enough before preparing the meal.
Another gentleman, Bruce Hargreaves, had severe problems with Euphorbia latex. He frequently came out in large blisters. Instead of becoming immune over the years he had been in contact with the plants, the reverse was true. He too had been temporarily blinded by latex.
Mr. Hargreaves says the fumes, when the latex is 'running high' can be almost as dangerous as direct contact!
Said to be highly poisonous.
The latex of this species is very dangerous. It has been used to remove warts and can cause blindness.
(Photo & more info in THE AMATEURS' DIGEST Vol 18 Issue 3 Nov. 2006 issue.)
Suspected of producing urethritis and strangury in the horse and the bovine. The plant has been used as a diaphoretic (in animals?) but its use is capable of producing cystitis and inflammation of the skin.
Many good uses are attributed to this Euphorbia including the use of the latex to aid the removal of warts, relief of toothache and relief from sores, skin eruptions and cancerous skin conditions. However a death was reported from drinking a decoction of the plant.
The latex is an irritant possibly causing blindness. It has been used for caulking boats and other adhesive purposes. This plant is often confused with Euphorbia tetragona.
Suspected of producing serious irritant poisoning with fatalities. It has been used in the treatment of snake bite and as a powerful purgative.
Latex is highly irritant and toxic. Severe ulceration of the skin has been reported.
E. heptagone, E. virosa, E. cereiformis, E. candelabrum, E. mauritanica
The latex of all of these is used to poison arrows.
Both leaf and latex are poisonous and have been the cause of a child's death.
While used medicinally in Angola and in Mozambique, it is reported as being poisonous. In East Africa the latex is used as a purgative and as a caustic on skin lesions.
The root is used as a fish poison while the flower is enjoyed as a relish and the green pod as a vegetable.
Latex of this plant it highly toxic. It will blister the skin. A single drop can cause intense pain and temporary blindness.
Cattle driven through dense bush containing this tree may suffer severe burns on the eyes, lips and facial skin sometimes so severe the animals have to be destroyed.
Candelabra-cactus (Euphorbia lactea) is an indoor ornamental plant. The latex (juice) of the plant contains an intense irritant that causes problems when the latex comes in contact with mucous membranes and eyes. Severe eye problems have also been experimentally produced in dogs. Ingestion should be avoided by children and family pets.
( References: Crowder, J. I., Sexton, R. R. 1964. Keratoconjunctivitis resulting from the sap of candelebra cactus and the pencil tree. Arch. Opthalmol., 72: 476-484.)
This plant is highly poisonous.
Once again the latex has been used to make poison arrows. This plant has been suspected of causing death in sheep.
This plant been the cause of an irritant poisoning among the staff of a Mission Station in Tanganyika. The water supply was accidentally contaminated with the plant from its use by the locals as a fish poison. This species is also thought to have caused human death, the symptoms being those of a gastro-intestinal irritant.
The latex is used for remedies for earache, whooping cough and asthma but in India the latex is also used as an insecticide . Also used as a fish poison in the Netherlands, Indies and Indonesia.
Jerry Wright, The Great Petaluma Desert, said he never had a problem with this Euphorbia but someone he knows just brushed up against a plant and his skin appeared to have third degree burns.
E. poissonii, E. unispina, E. venenifica The latex of these euphorbias is a powerful irritant. Euphorbia poissonii, for example, is used in de-hairing hides. These three species are often confused as they are similar in appearance.
E. pulcherrima (Poinsettia)
In recent years there has been a lot of debate over the toxicity of this plant. For as long as I can remember, we were taught that this plant is dangerous. In the past couple of years some commercial sources of Poinsettias have stated emphatically that this is a myth and that the plant is harmless. Other sources including The Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of Southern and Eastern Africa clearly state, "The latex is highly irritant ... in the Netherlands, Indies and Indonesia the bark, leaf and root are regarded as being markedly toxic and in South China the plant is used as a fish poison."
The latex is a violent emetic and purgative and is used by natives for the purpose of curing indigestion and constipation. The sap is highly irritant, however. A case of death from drinking a concoction of the plant is on record. A yellow resinous substance in this plant called Euphorbin can cause terrible blistering of the skin.
The Nyamwezi use the latex as an emetic in snake bite. The latex is described as being acrid and toxic and in sufficient dose can fatally poison someone.
Suspected of being toxic.
Used as a fish poison
An extract of the dried root is put in Vodka to cause vomiting after poisoning. The juice of the plant is used as a cosmetic to clear the skin.
Suspected of being poisonous to sheep and goats.
Many good uses are attributed to this plant. The powdered root is used as an emetic in stomach disorders. At the same time, however, in Southern Rhodesia a species of Euphorbia which is probably this one, is one of the material used in making poison arrows. Handling of a fresh plant has been known to produce irritation of the skin.
The latex of this plant can cause irritation and even blisters and produces severe irritation and even blindness when accidentally applied to the eyes.
E. tirucallii - the well known Pencil Euphorbia
A most dangerous Euphorbia and one of the most readily available plants, even in supermarkets. Latex from this plant has been the cause of death, blindness and severe illness. The latex produces excruciating pain and severe inflammation if it gets into a cut on the skin or on to the eyeball. It produces a more intense irritation of the eyeball than of the skin which may result in ulcerations on the eyeball.
On record is the death of an African adult male resulting from haemorrhaged gastro-enteritis after swallowing the latex as a cure for sterility. Deaths from poisoning after taking medicine made from the plant have also been reported. The juice has been used as a mosquito repellent and in India as an insecticide.
E. trigona (African Milk Tree)
Sap is irritating to skin and eyes, causes swelling to tongue, mouth and throat
Suspected of being toxic to sheep and goats although many medicinal uses have been made of the latex.
It's poison is said to be an extremely dangerous poison producing severe inflammation of the mucosae.
Latex is an irritant and highly poisonous. It is also used as an arrow poison.
E. caterviflora, E. coerulescens, E. esculenta, E. gorgonis, E. inermis and E. pentagona
All are eaten by animals but may nonetheless be an irritant to humans.
Red leafed Euphorbia (resembling a Prunus)
This plant caused the death of two children in Malawi. They were pretending it was the edible root of some other plant, proceeded to cook it and then ate the root and died. A stem of the same plant was used as a spit to cook sausages over a fire and caused vomiting and much unpleasantness.
The seeds of this plant have poisoned both children and adults in South Africa. Apparently seed has been eaten with medicinal intent. It is possible children ate it because it tastes very much like an almond nut. Acute abdominal pain was experienced about a half hour after the ingestion of the seeds. Within fifteen minutes vomiting and diarrhoea set in. Deaths, however, are unknown. The pounded leaf is used as a fly repellent in India to keep flies from horses' eyes.
The seed of J. multifida produces the same toxic effects as J. curcas but is more active than that of the latter. The seed also has a nutty flavor and several records of poisoning in children and adults are on record, one of which was fatal in three days. The poisonous effects continue for several days and even for as long as a week. One nut is sufficient to produce violent illness in a dose as small as one grain.
In the Philippines the plant is used as a fish poison.
Jatrophaurens (J. cureas) - (Now correctly called Cnidoscolus urens)
The leaf of this plant has irritating, stinging hairs which produce local irritation, burning and itching. If eaten it produces swelling of the lips, flushing of the face, faintness and even collapse associated with vomiting. The fruit and twig and the latex are also irritant poisons. It is in fact regarded as one of the most poisonous plants in the world.
Note: Seeds and sap of all jatrophas are poisonous.
Monadenium (unknown species)
A damaged plant caused two people to break out in an extremely irritating rash when they 'passed by' the plant in an outdoor garden.
A liquid extract from this plant in combination with an extract from Portulaca quadrifida has been used as a remedy for gonorrhoea. An extract taken alone, however, of M. lugardae, is said to be poisonous and to produce vomiting.
The Zulu and Swati believe that to touch the plant or even to lie in its shadow bring certain and sudden, violet death.
Interestingly the root is used in some places as a medicine but taken in sufficient quantities can produce hallucinations and delirium. Eating the raw root produces a burning sensation in the mouth and gullet and can result in rapid death.
The root of P. engleri was smoked in Northern Rhodesia by the Lla as a means of committing suicide. If you smoke the bark slowly, however, the result is not fatal! The bark of the above ground parts of the plant are said to be non-toxic, the former used by the Lla as a toothbrush.
Used medicinally in many places, it is also used as a fish poison in India and the tropics.
Latex is used as a fish poison.
The most danger from the latex of this plant is to the eyes. It will cause considerable destruction, even total loss of the eye. Applied to the mouth it causes tremendous swelling. If it touches the skin an itchy rash results usually followed by blisters and sores.
The latex gives off a highly irritant vapor. One man reported that even though he covered his face and kept the specimens at arm's length when he was collecting them, he felt irritation of the eyelids, nostrils and lips for several hours.
S. grantii, S. kirkii and S. volkensii
The latex of all three plants is undoubtedly extremely irritant.
Doreen Court in her book Succulent Flora of South Africa, mentions several euphorbias that are edible, often having roots similar to potatoes. That may be true but we should never be tempted to experiment by tasting any plant in the Euphorbiaceae family unless of course one fancies a game of Russian Roulette.
What to do in an emergency? Is there an Antidote?
According to Malawi tradition there is an antidote and this is Euphorbia hirta, a common but pretty bright green weed said to be effective as an antidote against E. cooperi latex in particular. However, some reports of problems from contact with E. hirta would seem to negate the idea of using this plant as an antidote. And let's face it. How many of us would happen to have it in our collections?
Aeonium lindleyi is recommended to provide immediate relief to the skin from the burning of Euphorbia latex. All you do is tear the leaf and rub the moist cut surface on the skin. Portulacaria afra has also been suggested for the same use.
Bruce Hargreaves suggests mother's milk. Although not readily available, it is the best topical treatment for latex poisoning, or any milk rather than water. Water only aggravates the pain. If you don't have milk, you must use water regardless of the pain because water at least helps dilute the poison and wash the latex away.
If you can find them, you may want to have on hand either Aeonium lindeyi or Portulacaria afra which, as mentioned earlier, are said to be of help in an emergency.
Wear protective gloves and even goggles when handling these plants, especially when repotting. If the latex gets on your skin, rinse thoroughly with milk or water. If milk is not available, rinse thoroughly with water several times.
Even if you think you have not come in contact with Euphorbia latex, never rub your eyes while working with the plants and always wash hands thoroughly after handling the plants.
If a rash appears consult a doctor immediately.
If your eyes do become involved rinse thoroughly with milk, or water if milk is not available. Seek medical help immediately. If your doctor is not available, go at once to the emergency department of your nearest hospital.
Euphorbias should not be kept where there are children or pets unless there is a way of keeping the plants safely contained away from them. Plants should also not be accessible to unsuspecting, inquisitive visitors especially those with touchy-feely tendencies or who like to help themselves to cuttings.
It has greatly alarmed me to see plants of Euphorbia tirucallii (and others) being sold in the supermarkets and garden centers here. To the uninformed these are all cactus. Sometimes the euphorbias are very large plants crowded in amongst cactus. The cactus spines invariably puncture the euphorbias causing the latex to spurt out. On one occasion I saw a small child blissfully examining one of these damaged euphorbias with her bare hands. The child's mother was horrified when I cautioned about the danger. The store Manager was shocked when I pointed out the danger to him. The euphorbias were immediately separated from the spiny cactus and moved to a higher elevation out of the reach of curious passers by. Nevertheless the plants will be eventually sold to the public who will take them home, unaware of how to handle them, unaware of the risks involved, unaware of what to do in an emergency. Would you step forward and say something in a similar situation? I hope so.
Stories and comments from other hobbyists
Synadenium (Euphorbia) grantii - African Milk Bush - Powerful Poison
Synadenium (Euphorbia) grantii (flowering habit). Location: Maui, Haiku Date 11 January 2007
Photo Credit: Forest Starr and Kim Starr, Makawao, Hawaii
Yesterday, 12th February 2012, I was pruning some small trees which included a green variety of Euphorbia grantii. As a result I had a large amount of sap from this plant on my hands which dried quickly. It caused no irritation on the palm of my hands, but shortly after I stopped pruning I noticed a stinging in my right eye which subsequently also affected my left eye. I also noticed some minor irritation on my face. This must have been caused by rubbing my eyes and face with my hands.Gerri Everist
The pain became excruciating. I washed with water and hoped that the pain would decrease. Cold water temporarily eased the pain slightly, but in hind-sight it had no beneficial affect. Although my sight did not seem to be affected, the pain prevented the eyes from being used for reading or driving.
After about two hours of no improvement I was taken for medical treatment. Both eyes where thoroughly irrigated with water (using a large syringe) and I was given injections of two different painkillers and anti-inflammatories. The pain subsided after about 30 minutes.
The poison is powerful and an extremely small amount can cause severe irritation of the eyes. I recommend that anyone affected get medical treatment immediately.
I hope this is useful.
I have had a bright red eyeball from a portion of a crest of E. lambii. A portion I was pulling off entered my eye. I'm going to the doctor. I had not realized what had caused the problem.
Ann Roberts, USA
I read your website after fighting a battle with a severe latex poisoning from white adhesive tape. The thing that strikes me first about all the accounts of people suffering the effects of these latex plants, is that no one mentioned being treated with Prednisone & cortisone to reverse the violent reactions. This is the second time I have been poisoned by a latex product, and both times was treated with Prednisone tablets & prescription strength cortisone cream!
A friend of mine who is an RN has told me that latex gloves used in hospitals for the prevention of exposure to AIDS virus is becoming a lethal problem. She said that repeated contact to patients as well as the hospital staff result in an "accumulated" level of toxicity in the body, eventually poisoning people some even DIE. She said latex products are very dangerous and can kill you.
It is frightening to realize how many products use latex - latex paint is now becoming a toxic problem, gloves, and worst of all, latex condoms. Just imagine the horrors. These products should be taken off the market, or at the very least be marketed with ENORMOUS WARNINGS.
Dermatitis after exposure to this garden plant
Doctor's report - 2004
I had six pediatric cases of erythematous papulovescicular skin eruptions due to exposure to Euphorbia myrsinites. These rashes may be confused with allergies, infections, or other dermatoses. Symptoms followed two to eight hours after exposure to the irritant sap. They increased in severity for an additional 12 hours and they resolved within three to four days.
There is no treatment other than to give pain relief medication, prevent infection and try to reduce swelling.
Mark Dimmitt, USA
When I called my mother on Mother's Day, she related a tale of a co-worker who had just pruned her pencil cactus (Euphorbia tirucallii) which grows to tree size in frost free Southern California, and soon had bleeding ulcerations wherever the sap had dripped on her arms. I've always heard that this is one of the most toxic species.
Where the latex contacts you does make a difference. I have had latex of E. grandicornis get on my hands, which caused no ill effect if I washed it off within a few minutes. But a drop on the thin skin on top of my foot produced a painful blister in just a minute or two.
Some species shoot a stream of latex a couple of feet when wounded.
J. Reese Brown, USA
Eurphorbia canariensis and E. virosa are reputed to be the most poisonous species.
Peg Spaete, USA
I believe that there is a difference in some people's reactions to the toxicity of various euphorbias. I can handle E. platyclada with no problem but a club member of ours just brushed up against his plant and his skin appeared to have third degree burns. It lasted for months. Milk will quiet the burning sensation should one get some on lips or in his eyes.
Also, while I had a reaction to some euphorbs at one time, I do not now.
A friend had collected euphorbs for years and then developed an allergy to them. She grew them in her home, not in a greenhouse. After the plants were removed, she was all right.
Jerry Wright, The Great Petaluma Desert, USA
I have been told that Tylecodon wallichii is very poisonous, and have been careful with that plant. In the same sub-section of that genus is Tylecodon paniculata, and I have never had any problem with that plant. However, while working with Tylecodon cacaliodes, T. fergusoniae, and T. hirtifolia the other day, I seem to have gotten a very bad reaction. Does anyone know if these species are poisonous? I think I will now go out and buy a gross of latex gloves!
John Gamesby, UK (Edited)
I recall that, many years ago, I heard that if a sheep ate Tylecodon (then Cotyledon) wallichii it (the sheep) would die, and that Tylecodon paniculata would just make it sick. This was referring to habitats where sheep also live.
Robert Wallace, USA
In 1986 I was in the field with Bruce Bayer who was showing me the various regions of the Little Karroo (couldn't have been a more perfect guide - EXTREMELY knowledgeable and was intimately familiar with nuances in the flora and geography!), and if I recall correctly, it was near the Robertson Karroo where we came upon a family who was hired by one of the local farmers to pull out every Tylecodon wallichii they could. The plants were very poisonous to sheep, and it really paid the farmer to have this done to his grazing land.
Other poisonous succulents might include members of the mesemb assemblage of the Aizoaceae which produce the specialized alkaloids collectively called 'mesembrine' (actually this is a mixture of various discrete alkaloid types, with a common "backbone" molecular structure).
Among the mesembs with the highest (known to me) reported mesembrine concentrations are: Sceletium, Trichodiadema, and a few other genera. These plants have been used medicinally by indigenous peoples. After the plants are chewed, fermented and dried (the fermentation is said to produce alcohol which solubilizes the native alkaloidal compounds. The dried material which is chewed is called Kanna or kougoued (spelling uncertain) and the alkaloid enhanced saliva swallowed. This remedy is used for stomach ailments, several other internal maladies and is mildly analgesic/narcotic. Kanna is also used to quiet noisy babies, so I have read!!
Almost all mesembs have fairly high concentrations of calcium oxalate in their tissues (particularly in the epidermis and hypodermis) which, if ingested to produce high ingested concentrations, can become toxic. Before people get alarmed, calcium oxalate is not intrinsically poisonous in low concentrations (rhubarb contains this chemical, yet is still edible in moderation). There IS some evidence that long term ingestion of calcium oxalate increases the chance of getting kidney stones, so keep your Trichodiadema plants off of your dinner plate!
My guess is that among the potential poisonous plants a succulent enthusiast might encounter, latex from various Euphorbia species is likely to be the most frequently encountered "nasty" poison. In Iowa, I average about 2 calls a year from hospitals and physicians asking about Euphorbia latex in the eyes of patients. I've watched John Trager prune Euphorbs at the Huntington wearing goggles, and after hearing about a painful latex in the eye story and others, I won't even pick up a clipper or knife without donning the goggles first.
Craig Hilton-Taylor, South Africa
(On farmers removing tylecodons from their land)-Yes, this is still an ongoing practice in many parts of the Karroo. On several farms people are employed to remove every Tylecodon they can find. The species most targeted are T. wallichii, T. cacalioides, T. ventricosus, T. grandiflorus and also Cotyledon orbiculata. The reason for removing them is because they are toxic to livestock (cardiotoxicoses). Individually these plants cause heavy stock losses annually and collectively are responsible for the most important plant poisonings in the region. A considerable amount of work has been done on these species and their effects.
The following will hopefully act as a warning to everyone not to leave parts of tylecodons, cotyledons or even kalanchoes lying around on refuse heaps, because if eaten by domestic pets they could prove fatal!
Many members (if not all) of the Crassulaceae contain cardiac glycosides. Tylecodon, Cotyledon, Adromischus and Kalanchoe have particularly high concentrations. Bowiea volubilis is another. In the case of the Crassulaceae, the pharmacologically active part of the molecules are known as bufadienolides and in the Crassulaceae can have an accumulative effect (i.e. if eaten once may not be fatal, but after several times will be fatal).
The animals most commonly poisoned by these cardiac glycosides are cattle, sheep, goats and donkeys. Horses are sometime affected, but generally they are more particular about what they eat. There have also been reports of dogs and chickens being poisoned. The poisons affect four systems, namely the cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, nervous and respiratory systems. Eating leaves of Crassulaceae results in what is termed "krimpsiekte" or shrinking disease (also sometimes called cotyledonosis). This can be in an acute or chronic form depending on the dose, length of exposure, and general health of the animals concerned. The symptoms vary but range from an initial swelling, to spasms, to lethargy, twisting of the neck or body to complete paralysis. Fatally poisoned animals become paralyzed and may lie fully conscious on their sides, sometimes for weeks, until they die or are destroyed. Mortality on some farms has been reported to be as high as 90% of a flock. The clinical signs are also aggravated by exercise, especially on hot days.
As mentioned, much work has been done on krimpsiekte. Researchers have found that as little as 56.7g of fresh leaves on 3 consecutive days were sufficient to induce the disease and death after 6 days. Researchers have also found that toxicity varies considerably not only between species but also within species and between localities. Krimpsiekte can occur throughout the year but most cases are reported in early spring or summer and in drought years, all times when good plant species for grazing are least abundant. The Crassulaceae are also unique in that they are one of the few plant groups known to cause secondary intoxication.
Dogs are particularly susceptible and like humans, can be poisoned by eating the meat of sheep and goats that have died from krimpsiekte. Kalanchoe species are also widely suspected of causing botulism-like signs and haemorrhaging diarrhoea in cattle.
Lots of work has been done in the search for suitable cures, but unfortunately, as far as I know, there is no treatment for krimpsiekte as yet.
More information on poisonous plants from various sources
Adenium obesum .. whole plant is poisonous
Jatropha .. seeds and sap are poisonous
Poinsettia .. leaves and flowers are poisonous (there are many who disagree)
Senecio .. plant and flowers are poisonous
Tylecodon wallichii (see comments earlier)
Yucca .. Foliage and flowers are poisonous
Note: If you find this article interesting and wish to share your experiences with succulents which can cause anything from mild irritation to severe toxic reactions, I will be happy to post your comments here with credit to each individual as the source. To ensure your privacy no e-mail addresses will be given.
Please e-mail your comments to me at email@example.com
This article was previously published in THE AMATEURS' DIGEST 1998 Special Edition and also appears in our Caudex booklets and is under strict copyright. You may print out this material for your personal use only.
Readers' Comments, Questions and Answers
Photo: Euphorbia milii (Thai hybrid with larger than normal flowers) Credit: Marina & Roy Welham
I just found out I purchased a Euphorbia Milli and I noticed your website page did not have this one listed. I am just wondering if you know about it so I can take the right precautions while handling it. Thank you
All parts of the plant are poisonous to both people and animals. Contact with the white, milky sap may cause severe blistering as well as intense pain to open cuts or eyes. Honey made from the flowers of these plants may be toxic. Some believe E. milii is less toxic than other euphorbias but the fact is different people may have varying reactions to the poison.
Always wear gloves when handling the plant if re-potting, etc. and be careful not to get the latex in your eyes. Keep children and pets well away from the plant.
I recently was exposed to the sap of the Euphorbia Rigida, a ground covering plant in my front yard. Unfamiliar with it's dangers, I completed my work and thoroughly rinsed my hands and arms as I was very dirty. Within 2 hours, my left eye started feeling irritated, and by morning it was completely swollen shut. A hot, burning, painful rash developed on the left side of my face and seemed to continue to spread. I was unaware I have splashed or wiped the sap on my face. I went to the doctor as blistering was occurring on the rash and was given an injection of antihistamine and steroid immediately. I am also on a oral steroid taper for the next ten days and should continue to use a cortisone cream. I have found relief in using milk to flush the skin. I now look like I have 2nd and 3rd degree burns on my face and both eyes are effected by swelling. The doctor stated it would continue to blister for about 4 days and then should resolve.
AnswerSubject:Euphorbia tirucalli encounter
So sorry to hear of your bad experience with a Euphorbia. We appreciate you sharing this with others who will be more careful in future after knowing what happened to you.
Here's hoping everything is back to normal soon..
Thank you so much for your site and all this valuable information. i have a few plants of sticks of fire growing on the hillside i've been cultivating across from my home in los angeles. gophers love these plants, chew them from underground and they invariably fall down the hillside. for a couple of years now i've been sticking the chewed stalks back into the ground and they grow well until the gophers go at it again. i've always been careful to wash my hands afterwards, have never used protective gloves and have never had a problem. until today. i guess i've reached my sticks on fire sap tolerance quota. a few hours after working on the hillside i felt a tingling and burning sensation around my lips and mouth like i'd rubbed a chili pepper on my face. it felt like i was having some allergic reaction but didn't connect it with the euphorbia tirucalli (sticks on fire) entirely until i reached your site especially since i'd never had a reaction before like what i've experienced today. reading the articles you've posted has been so helpful and comforting for me as i had no idea what was going on. i've tried a few of the tips offered here beginning with applying milk with a cotton swab to my face, then yogurt. the yogurt was very soothing and has stopped the burning sensation. i have the homepathic remedy rhus tox and have just taken it as well. the suggestion to use apple cider vinegar also makes sense. again, thank you so much for this valuable information and for providing a forum for us to share our experiences. after today's episode as far as me being the rescuer of the pencil plants on the wild hillside in the hollywood hills: i'm done. the gophers have won and can eat their hearts content...euphorbia schmorbia!
AnswerSubject: Euphorbia burns
I really appreciate your email explaining what happened to you when growing Euphorbia tirucallii. It's so important to share information like that so that others, including myself, have as much information as possible especially about what we find helps the most when we are 'burned' by euphorbias. Some of us are more susceptible than others and some handle the plants for a while without a problem and then one day we find ourselves reacting as you have done in this case.
I'm so pleased to hear the information on our web site was helpful to you.
Helen - UK
I read your webpage with interest. Over a week ago I was pruning back some over-grown euphorbia in our garden, I was at it for 3 hours, and the following day my arms and chest were itchy and red. This worsened and for the next week, resulted in me seeking medication and anti-histamine creams to try and calm things down. The cream didn't really help, and my skin is only just recovering. At the time I didn't realise what had caused it, and thought it may have been from seafood. Having now read your website, I can clearly see it was caused by the plant, which I will now be avoiding at all costs. It reminded me of my allergic reaction to penicillin as a child, very painful and itchy, made worse by heat. Thank you
Thanks for sharing your nasty experience with euphorbias. Sorry you had to go through that. I believe you can get Calamine lotion in the UK? Many who have used it for Euphorbia 'burns' have found that the anti histamine creams don't work but the Calamine lotion does. You might want to try it if you are still having problems. Sure hope your skin clears up soon. It can be a very painful experience, I know.
Thanks, I did use calamine cream in the end, it took the itch away. I also used bicarbonate of soda (baking powder), mixed as a paste, until I could get to a shop. That helped also.
AnswerSubject: Pencil cactus
That's great. I wasn't sure you had seen the notice about the Calamine lotion on our web site. Glad it helped. Interesting too about the baking soda. Sometime the old fashioned remedies work better than today's fancy creams.
I nearly lost my eyesight from this plant. No one warned me and I worked for a tropical landscape company that had no idea how toxic the sap of this plant. After washing with soap after re-potting one of these and getting the sap on my hands, I rubbed my eyes. An hour later I was in the ER with both corneas burned out and legally blind. This ER had no idea how to treat this and flushed my eyes with water. I got home and my son looked the plant up on the internet and said water does not always get this stuff out of the eye, but milk binds with the latex. So I poured a gallon of milk in my eyes, but the damage was done. I went to a new ER and the doctor said I had holes everywhere in my corneas. I was sent home with Vicodin, steroids. After three days of the worst pain of my life (suicidal pain) and blind, the eyes began to heal, but then the fluid in my eyes began to swell and I was in danger of loosing my sight. The eye specialist said it was the worst eye burn she had ever seen. She also said that I may have a latex allergy because of the severe damage to my eyes. I have some scar tissue to this day. What a nightmare. People need to know how toxic it can be and the public needs to be informed of the danger of this plant.ER doctors need to know how to treat the eyes if exposed. I was lucky that the second ER doctor had just taken a class on toxic plants. You just don't know what will happen to you if exposed to the sap. I would not wish the pain I had for three days on my worst enemy. Holes in the cornea expose your raw nerves to air. Agony, even with massive pain killers. This plant when sold must come with a warning. The government wont allow cigarettes without a warning telling you how dangerous they are, but will let you be exposed to a toxic plant with no warning. Dangerous stuff.
This is absolutely the worst story I've ever heard about the dangers of euphorbias. Thank you for sharing it. I am hoping with your stories and others like it, people will see the plants in garden centers and warn the sellers. Trouble is many don't know they are euphorbias and find out the hard way.
Thanks again for sharing
Subject: Euphorbia eye damage
Alma L. - USA
I wonder if your organization, with so much relevant information about Euphorbia exposure, might possibly have an enlightening effect on poison control centers.
Do you know if anyone is advising the regional or national poison center places (their phone # is in the front of our local phone book) about Euphorbia danger? I thought I was dealing with a Sedum, so did the first nurse in the emergency room (I brought a sample along). It might have helped treatment along if the poisoning center my husband called before we went to the hospital, could have helped us to identify the plant. They said to treat it as a burn, with burn cream, or (I forget what else). If I can help with increasing awareness at the poison centers and my hospital's emergency crew I would like to. I plan to remove the plant so it won't happen again to me, or to the local cats, dogs or kids. Thank you for having this page. I plan to write about my experience later.
This is what happened to me on Saturday evening. The exposure happened Saturday evening. I'm quite sure it was Euphorbia myrsinites. I was trimming the dried blooms off of the plant and I threw them in the garbage can. I went inside, don't think I washed my hands but I put Restasis drops in my eyes because they felt very dry. My hands must have contaminated the Restasis ampule because there was a strong burning sensation in my eyes from the drops. Then I used Visine Dry Eye Relief and the burning continued, then I used Murine Plus, with the same reaction. (This is where I should have realized I was dealing with something new to me, but instead I latched on to the idea that I must have forgotten to use my dry eye medication while away at a retreat all day. I think I had a long and very faulty, Senior Moment.)
I decided to do what I have done for bad dry eye attacks before, which is put ice packs on and off of my eyes. Meanwhile my husband and I searched the internet for the plant as a Sedum, which I thought it was. We called a poison center, (called it a Sedum probably) and they said to treat it like a burn, with burn cream. My husband tried rinsing out my eyes with a 50 cc syringe, but it didn't seem to help. After 2-3 hours, while the eyes cooled down some, still very red and swollen lids and bloodshot eyes, I decided to go to the emergency room because of fear of eye damage and that I might need a medication. While I picked up the Restasis ampule to show the medics, I must have brushed my face, and burning and redness started spreading around my face. At emergency, where the nurse agreed that my plant sample was probably a Sedum, the Dr. said my corneas looked ok, they gave me an eye wash in a fountain device, had me read eye charts in a portable device, asked questions about my allergies, washed my face with soap and water, and told me to come back or go to my MD if it got worse. They called it a chemical skin exposure. (They left my eyes out of my home report, which worries me some. I'm going to check that it is in their own report, in case there are complications.)
This is Tuesday 5 pm and my eyes feel normal and the eyelid swelling went down Saturday night. My face is still red and swollen and itchy, and has some blotches from popped blisters. I've taken Benedryl because a pharmacist told me it is one of the better antihistamines for skin problems. On his advice I didn't put anything on my face while there were blisters.
On the advice of an optometrist (double checking my corneas because I was still worried about them) I've kept my eyes hydrated, and I tried some cortisone cream on my face but it doesn't help much. I want to help get the word out about the danger of exposure to Euphorbia latex. A "Master Gardener" neighbor gave me the plant starters for my Euphorbia when I asked her for some, but I don't remember her warning me about touching it. I couldn't get hold of her the evening this happened. She was very sorry this happened to me.
It was frightening enough that I think there should be much more awareness about it, among plant 'sharers', and among medical and poison centers.
You ask a very good question. I have never heard of any one person advising the various poison control centers of the problem with euphorbias. It would be a less daunting task for people to contact their own poison control centers if they are aware of euphorbias in their area or are being sold at retail outlets like grocery stores where the sellers usually have no idea what they are selling.
Sorry you had such a bad experience and hope all is well by now.
Plant & Photo - Marina Welham
Rudolf S. - USA
Regarding "How dangerous are euphorbias?" by Marina Welham.
Thanks for the very useful compilation, which is especially appreciated for its detail as I am a professional botanist.
Euphorbia misera, native to SoCal and Baja California, probably should be added to the list. I have a large plant (about .8x.8 m) growing in my garden in Berkeley. I was doing general weeding and was wearing only a T-shirt. In reaching into the bush of Euphorbia misera to get the small weeds near its stem base, I broke some of the smaller brittle branches and got sap on my right arm, especially the inner side which is less hairy and weathered. Next day I had an annoyingly itchy rash (a reddish area like a burn, not oozing, and no pustules) on my arm, and also right thigh (I was wearing shorts). The rash has persisted for seven days and the itch is still intense.
Rudi S., USA, came into contact with Euphorbia misera and suffered a severe rash and itching still severe after 7 days. I recommended he try calamine lotion available in any drug store. He used it and tells me .... "Thanks for the calamine lotion tip. It helped. I'm cured." Since it worked for him, maybe it is worth trying for others who may have a bad reaction to Euphorbia latex.
Bll B. - USA
I got a very bad reaction from euphorbia recently in my eye. I pulled some Euphorbia out with my bare hands, washed my hands quickly (not knowing the danger) and must have touched my eye later. I rinsed repeatedly with water, salted water, and milk. The milk was the best, but I still had pain that was very distracting to the point of not being able to relax at all. I then found a book on Google Books from 1909 that described medical uses of euphorbias. It said that the effects are lost if the substance is mixed with acetic acid. So I applied a vinegar with a cotton swab around my eye (and rinsed my lips and hands with it too). The pain stopped very quickly. I don't know if the substance is basic, but I am convinced that acetic acid detoxifies it.
Ed. Please note Bill says he swabbed "around" the eye and not "in" the eye.
After seeing a well pruned "finger plant "at the arboretum on Catalina Island I decided to prune ours which we had always called a pencil plant. For many years we had it as a house plant, then moved it to the porch in a larger pot and finally to the ground in the front yard where it has grown quite large. I've done the repotting in the past, did get the sap on me but not a lot and always washed it off fairly soon. I didn't know it was toxic. This time I really pruned the tree which is 7 feet or so tall and was very dense. It was a nice day I was shirtless and in shorts but had gloves and sun glasses on. I didn't clean up till after eating lunch. The sap by then had dried and gathered some dirt to boot. I showered but the sap remained on my skin. I used some of my wife's Nuetregena Sesame formula body oil which I'd used before to remove sticky stuff.
It wasn't long before my arms started burning, and continued to do so until I got home and showered again and even then it continued and a rash appeared as well. I took a couple of OTC benadryl and went to bed. In the morning the rash was still visible but not the burning. This is the third day and I still have the rash and some mild blistering. . As luck would have it my annual visit to the dermatologist is tomorrow so I'll have more for him to see than just all my "age related" issues! Your web site was very informative. By the way the tree looks a lot better after the pruning!Marina Welham
Thank you for sharing your experience with us. There are some people who discount the dangers of euphorbias and your story is just one more proof of how careful we have to be around these plants. Thank goodness you had glasses on which avoided any of the white sap getting in your eyes.
Here's hoping your doctor can suggest something that will clear up the rash sooner than later.
Thanks for your website
. The donkey tail one (myrsinites) I deadheaded last night must be the cause of the red patch on my face this morning (I was brushing my hair off my face while working).
Your website came up as soon as I googled what I thought the cause might be, and it highlighted some interesting info on this particular euphorbia. I didn't know it was one of the more poisonous ones.
I'll live with the rash a while before going to a doc, and see if it goes away
It was good to read about this. More careful next time! Thanks !
As mentioned below, the morning after contact with the donkey tail euphorbia - red welts on the side of my face, tender, rough prickly skin, though not stinging like nettles.
Day 2 better, welts died down, skin not as prickly.
Day 3 more improvement, still patchy red, but skin feel more normal. Much better.
I never put a thing on it, no cortisone cream nor ice....
Good thing I didn't rub my eyes with my hand!
I enjoyed the information you provided on the toxicity of various Euphorbs. I'm an amatuer Euphorbia collector and currently have about 30 different species. Knowing the potential danger, I've always exercised some level of caution handling these plants. For the most part, I am largely immune to the affects of getting the latex on my skin, at least in small quantities. One major exception to that is Euphorbia heterochroma. For whatever reason, this species is by far the most irritating for me, even more than E. tirucalli. Small drops of latex on my hands will cause a mildly painful rash that lasts for days. Worse, the fumes from the latex smell incredibly strong, make my eyes water, and usually give me headache lasting an hour or two. I suspect that for those people who are very sensitive to Euphorbia latex, this would be a very dangerous species.
Louise Peacock, Canada
Just visited your site because I took a bad reaction to Donkey Tail spurge - Euphorbia myrsinitis.
I am a volunteer involved in a large local Park bed (Mississuaga, Ontario, Canada) and we have two really nice big patches of Euphorbia myrsinites.
Today the Park gardener and I were discussing how we would love to move some of it to another bed we are working on. I touched a piece that was broken off on the ground - with my bare hands. the latex got on my hand.Two hours later, my face, ears, neck and lips began to burn and tingle. I suspect I touched all of these parts BEFORE I washed up I looked it up and arrived at your site and of course subsequently discovered that this particular type is highly poisonous.I also checked in my Homeopathic remedies book and found that Rhus Tox., Opium and Camphor are all used as antidotes (homeopathically). Luckily I have Rhus in the house and took some. The burning has reduced, but it's still there.
I have subsequently warned our Park gardener that we must absolutely NOT ever touch this plant without gloves and may want to be careful about where we put it.
I have listed all the technical information I know for the Firestick cactus. I have read as much as I can about the burning and skin irritations it can cause in humans. But my question is about animals and the cactus.
Our cat would drink from the plate that we put on the bottoms of our plants. For some strange reason the darn cat loves dirty water. Our Firestick cactus sits out side in the sun for the full growing effects. When we watered the cactus the cat began drinking from the plate where the excess water drained into. About 24 hours after she drank the water she became extremely sick. We took her to the vet and within a week she died.
The vet could not determine what killed her only that she died from poisoning. Could the Firestick have killed her?Marina Welham
I am so sorry you lost your cat.
It certainly is possible the cat somehow ingested poison from the plant through the water. It doesn't take more than a pinprick of the skin of the plant to produce the poisonous latex. Animals should never be allowed anywhere near euphorbias.
It is also never a good idea to let animals drink dirty water or water running out of plant pots. There can be all sorts of problems in that water such as fertilizer run-off, pesticide run-off, salts run-off, etc.
This is not a cactus, by the way. It is one of the 'other' succulents.
To discourage cats from digging in pots .. a layer of coarse gravel on top of the soil is helpful. Cats are very smart. They don't like the sharp edges on the gravel.
This is in response to your article on the How Dangerous are Euphorbias? article. I have a LOT of E. tirucallii plants and I have never had any reaction to the sap or latex or smell before. It's one of my favorite plants to grow, too, since they seem to respond to thigmotropism the most out of all of the plants I own and grow. My largest grew to be 6 feet from about 6 inches in less than two years!
But this article seems a little absurd to me. I mean, is there the possibility that i'm immune to the sap, since i've gotten quite a bit of it on my skin before when propagating and repotting and never reacted, *and I've propogated them a lot, and needed to repot them a lot because they grew too mcuh,* even after leaving the sap on my skin for long periods of time. But I don't know.
I don't mean to sound like i'm criticizing you, but these plants of mine don't seem harmlful at all. In fact, our cat even ate it and is still around, without getting sick. It says in your article that this is one of the most dangerous of the Euphorbia genus, but i'm not seeing how it could be. Can a person be completly immune to the sap? And can cats be immune to it, too? Just wondering,
Thanks for listening,Marina Welham
Thank you for sharing your positive experience with this plant. Different people can have much different reactions to the poisonous sap. One might make a comparison to people with allergies to certain substances while others are not bothered at all by the same substances. I can't answer for your cat, however. I am very surprised an animal would eat a piece of this plant since the sap would taste horrible to say the least.
The serious reactions experienced by some people to the sap of this plant is well documented over a great many years. I would still caution you to be careful handling the plant. If your skin has no reaction to the sap, more tender areas such as your eyes might have a totally different reaction.
Thigmotropism is a general term used to describe a plant's response to physical contact. It moves or grows or bends in response to touch or contact stimuli. One example is the Venus fly trap. I do not believe Euphorbia tirucallii exhibits this type of response
Penny Rembe, USA
I have been reading Beth Chatto's Gravel Garden Book and wanted more information on Euphorbias. I planted some last year and love their color.In the chapter in her book on "Electrifying Euphorbias" I was surprised to see the different sizes and colors, so I looked up Eup. on the internet, got your site and was totally shocked to see how dangerous they are. Then I went back to the book to see if Chatto warned about this in her book. At the very end of the chapter she does warn about the white milky sap, "damaging to the skin on sensitive areas, wear gloves and be careful of your eyes". But she does tell you how to use them in flowers arrangements and how trouble free they are. No poisonous warning or anything!
I was a little surprised after the horror stories on your site.
Unfortunately most publications that talk about euphorbias don't list more than a casual warning. I don't think prior to the information on our web site there was as much information as we put together on just how dangerous the plants can be .. depending on the reactions of different people to different plants. I think it is a matter of people being partially informed and so they pass on what they know not realizing there is much more to the story.
What worries me more is to walk into a nursery or even a food store that sells plants and to see a variety of euphorbias for sale and watch children handling them without any warning in sight.
I appreciate your input and will add your comments to that page on our web site.
Robert Streul, USA
Euphorbia drupifera (earlier known as Elaeophorbia drupifera)
This tree from tropical Africa should be handled with extreme care. The latex is very dangerous. It can cause blindness.
Gabridl C.L.M. Bakkum - Amsterdam (Netherlands)
Last week I was working on a grave that had become covered by branches of Euphorbia cyparissias (Cypress Spurge, one of the more common wild-growing Euphorbia species in NW Europe). At the time I had not identified the plant among the other weeds, but as soon as I saw a white latex spurting around I realized that this was most probably an irritating plant juice. I continued pulling the weeds but washed my hands immediately afterwards. So did my companion, who had collected the weeds for disposal.
Without realizing it, however, I must already have wiped my forehead. About three quarters of an hour later my left eye became very irritated and inflamed. It felt like your eye can feel when you are slicing onions, but worse. In the past, I have had both chilli pepper juice and tear gas in my eyes, but this was far more painful and the pain lasted far longer. The eye started to weep uncontrollably, and it was impossible to keep it open for more than a few seconds at a time.
Twenty minutes later I reached home where I rinsed the eye in a bath of cold tap water. This had no effect so I went to a pharmacy five minutes away. There my eye was rinsed with a mild saline solution, but this too had no effect. Ten minutes later I was treated by a doctor who had to drip an anaesthetic in the eye before she could even begin examining it for I could not keep it open let alone allow her to look under the eyelids. (By now it was well over an hour after the latex had landed in my eye, and more than half a gallon of fluid had already been used to rinse it!) The doctor prescribed me an eye salve containing cetostearylalcohol and told me to keep out of the light as much as possible, keep the salved eye closed (well, I could do little else with it), and keep applying the salve for two to three days. Also, she told me to alert her immediately in the case of impaired vision, double vision, or acute blindness. Apparently, Euphorbia latex can burn right through the outer layers of the eye, causing lasting eye damage. By now, the other eye started to show the same symptoms, but to a lesser degree.
About seven hours later I was able for the first time to keep the eye open for longer than a few seconds, but it took three days before the pain had disappeared, and then two days more before the eye did not feel like it had been punched any more. Meanwhile, my companion had had a patch of blistering rash on her arm that disappeared after a day.
Jim Croce -USA
I have been fighting to control the Euphorbia growing as a weed in my banks of English Ivy for 20+ years (Pennsylvania).... i never knew what it was called till just today upon visiting yours and other web sites...it seems to be Euphorbia niciciana
I have long known that the latex of it in one's eyes causes much pain, but last month I got careless again, and got it in my eyes. In my experience, the pain lasts for 3-6 hrs. and causes no perminent damage... wash eyes often. Once, after 2 hr. , I applied a drop of olive oil, thinking this would comfort the eye...NEVER DO THIS...it must have trapped the latex in, and the eye with oil was painful for 12+hrs. and the eye without was better in 4 hrs
I was pruning some euphorbia in the garden, carefully knowing the sap to be an irritant. A tiny amount of sap squirted into my eye and I immediately ran to the kitchen and bathed it in an eggcup of cold water hoping to flush it out before too much damage was done. Within 5 minutes I had an acute burning sensation in my eye and the only relief was to keep it in the water for the next 2 hours, blinking constantly.
Having rung the local doctor and eye hospital who were unable to give any advice other than to flush it with water, we went onto your website where milk was suggested. I then bathed it in milk for 20 minutes and the pain subsided - an enormous relief.
Shula or David Weiner asked whether the latex in this Euphorbia was dangerous.
Euphorbia antiquorum from Peninsula India is a succulent in the family Euphorbiaceae. It is not a cactus which is a separate family of plants.
First described in 1753, the name given the plant means "of the ancients".
The latex or sap in this Euphorbia can certainly be dangerous. It can irritate the skin to varying degrees and if squirted accidentally into the eyes can cause blindness. In particular, if the plant is injured or cut the sap gives off a very strong and lingering odor - not great for the lungs!
Not only should you protect this plant from extreme cold .. it should have warmth year round. In winter a minimum recommended temperature is around 50F (10C). Even a little warmer than that would be better especially if humidity is high.
Flowers (which are called cyathia on this plant) are yellow. They are full of honey that attract bees. Seed capsules turn deep red on maturity.
This plant is easily propagated from seed or from cuttings. If taking cuttings, wear glasses and gloves and do this outside the house or greenhouse so there is plenty of air circulation to disperse the fumes. Leave the plant outside for a few hours before returning it to the home or greenhouse.
Juanita Lavalais, USA
Do you know or could you direct me to some who knows about the content of the poisonous sap of Euphorbia ? What's in it? I am recovering from an accident.
I was pruning a tall Synadenium and the sap squirted into my eye. Pain as I have never experienced!!!!!. I washed my eye out really well and went to the eye doctor right away. I took one of my C&S books that has a blurb on how poisonous the sap is. They were baffled! So they rinsed my eye out several times. After each rinse they tested the ph level in the eye.
I have forgotten all the terminology but I believe they termed it anepithelial (sp?) abrasion of the cornea. It's just that my vision in the eye is slightly fuzzy. So I am still rinsing with artificial tears in between antibiotic eye drops. The doctors do not anticipate permanent diminished or lost of sight. Just a minor problem. The worst is over.
Various sources list the composition of the Euphorbia latex as .. euphorbon, a protein called cytotoxin. glucoside and resin. Also found on the internet where it says euphorbias also contain haemolytic saponins.
Rosemarie Sauer, USA
One of my Shar-pei dogs is recovering from hunting a mouse in a pencil euphorbia - despite a trip to the vet his eyes were closed for two days and he was coughing all night so he had gotten the sap in his mouth too!
Mary Reiersgaard, USA
I found the article -How Dangerous are Euphorbias very informative.Following is an experience I just had with Euphorbias.On St. Patricks Day, Mar. 17, 2004, I picked a bouquet of the chartreuse, bell shaped flowers for my home. I noticed a sticky white sap as well as an acrid odor emanating from the cuttings but I thought they were pretty so did not throw them out immediately.Now I realize that I should have, because I immediately became very tired and my heart rate dropped to 42 when I took my blood pressure.Not thinking that this was caused by the euphorbia, I kept it on my dining room tablealthough the odor was very strong. I did not leave the house for most of the day, and in the evening I read for a couple of hours about 8 feet from the euphorbia bouquet. I could not understand why I could not keep awake and finally removed the flowers to the garage, because the odor was so offensive and strong. It seemed as though it was anesthetizing me. The following morning I had all the symptoms of a stroke-dizziness, weakness of my left leg and arm, slurred speech, sagging mouth and left eye lid. I immediately sought medical treatment and have had a Cat Scan and other tests. The conclusion was that I had a TIA. In the process, it finally occurred to me that I might have inhaled the poisonous fumes from the euphorbia (I believe it is a Euphorbia amygdaloide) causing the TIA or symptoms of a stroke.In my search I have found very little information until I came across your site. Has anyone else reported being poisoned by the fumes?
Euphorbia amygdaloide is a perennial herb and is not succulent. In the article (here) there are two reports of people having had bad reactions to the fumes of some euphorbias. Reactions to Euphorbia latex and/or fumes can vary from person to person.
Synadenium grantii, a dangerous weed
African Milk Bush
From Africa, this is a succulent shrub with milky latex; leaves alternate, simple, fleshy; flowers small and inconspicuous.
All parts of this plant are highly poisonous. Immediate or delayed severe irritation can occur including burning, redness, blisters, swelling to skin and eyes following contact with the latex. Ingestion causes irritation of lips, tongue, and throat.
MAY BE FATAL IF EATEN!
Report from Charles Zammit, Malta
A colleague at work described this succulent to me saying it had long finger- like stems and leaves on the edges with small insignificant flowers. I concluded that this was Synadenium grantii, in Malta a common succulent.
He told me that he had been removing dead flowers from this plant which had sat in the corner of his garden neglected. He got milky sap on his hands. When the sap dries it becomes transparent, even after the hands are washed, the sap is still there. He rubbed his eyes and said that he had the feeling of having sand in his eyes. He touched his eyes with his hands trying to look at them in the mirror. He ended up in hospital and if took more than three weeks to recover from the damage done.
I have concluded that if euphorbias are neglected and not watered, the poisonous sap becomes more concentrated. This is reasonable thinking when one realizes that a plant growing in severe conditions has to enhance its protection.
I know there has been quite a lot of articles about dangers in handling euphorbias but I thought to let you know about this bad experience so that others will not make the same mistakes.
Photo: Andrea Randazzo - Italy
A favorite neighbor gave three pencil cactus away before moving out of state. Only one of the three survived. Unfortunately the survivor grew to full size in my elderly mothers home. While trying to install security motion lights last weekend the vegetation around her yard needed to be cut back. Everything was going well until my husband and brother started to prune the pencil cactus. It squirted them with the white milky substance. Immediately after pruning the pair went inside to wash off. My brother apparently did not wash his hands well enough because he happened to holler about a burning sensation in his eye. He removed his contact lenses. After flushing with a gentle eye-wash solution he found no relief. Following a call to the poison control center he stood in the shower and flushed his eye with warm water. Thanks to a 1% cortisone cream from the .99 cent store the swelling went down and his eyesight returned the following day. My husband thankfully wore glasses but unfortunately they were unusable as they were etched where the milk had touched the glass. The shirts the pair wore are stained as if by bleach in the locations where the milk fell on the fabric. Every part of their body that came into contact with the milk was red or bleeding and appeared to have chemically burned. All their mucus membranes where burned. The most visible being around the mouth and nose. My husband happened to have missed washing off a spot of the milk on the underside of his upper arm. There is now a red blister approximately 3 inches by 4 inches across and about 1/4 inch in height. My whole family is in shock. My mother is planning on having the tree removed by a professional who will be thoroughly forewarned. Thank you for your web-site. It has been the most informative page on the subject. As a result we will be removing all of the pencil cactus relatives from our backyard for the sake of our very curious 2 year old daughter.
Sarah Marshall, USA
At about 12:30 pm yesterday I pruned the tops of our pencil cactus which were hitting the ceiling and flopping over. The sap was very milky. I got it on my hands, and washed them, noting the bad odor, and the stickiness. About half an hour later, I felt as if someone had rubbed a jalapeno pepper all over my face, and particularly above my eyes. There was no visible blistering or rash, but it felt as if there should be! The sensations went from burning to stinging to just plain hurting. My nose felt like it was burning, on the inside, and the edges of my nostrils were painfully tender. At about midnight, my eye started to water, and my nose started to run with clear mucous. But I went to sleep.
At 1:00 the pain woke me up. I got up, washed my eye again, and went online. I read your website (with the good eye) and decided to go to the Emergency Room. You don't mess around with threats to vision. My brother drove me down, and the doctor anaesthetized my eye and gave me some antihistamine eye drops which are helping a lot. He said that HE has a pencil cactus in his home, which has grown to the ceiling and it all intertwined with a lace curtain, but it looks like the lace curtain and the cactus will have to leave together, since it's looking like nobody will be interested in cutting the cactus up!
I think that my reaction was mainly caused by fumes. Maybe I later touched a finger to my eye area, which caused a extreme irritation of the membranes generally known as conjunctivitis. Lesson learned! I will never handle that plant again, as now I know that the next time it could be even worse. This morning I have a puffy weepy eye but I'll be fine.
Thanks for keeping this site going.
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