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Euphorbia punicea Swartz

Rikus van Veldhuisen

Euphorbia punicea Swartz is a remarkable plant. This caudex plant is characterized by an exceptionally beautiful inflorescence. It is also quite easy in cultivation and only demands moderate heat in winter.
The main area of distribution of Euphorbias is Africa, but Euphorbia punicea originates from the sunny island of Jamaica. All this makes it quite astonishing that so little is known about this plant and that it is hardly encountered in our collections.

Its exceptionally beautiful inflorescence motivated me to write this article. Jaap Keijzer has had a plant of this species in his collection since 1990. He got it as a seedling from Chuck Hansen. It was never really noticed until the winter of 96-97 when it showed the beautiful red leaves that surround the actual flowers. After seeing this Mrs. Smit, editor of the Dutch journal "Succulenta" asked me to write an article about this lovely-flowering Euphorbia. As this Journal is not widely distributed and written in the difficult Dutch language, interest is still fairly great in this remarkable species of Euphorbia. Also I hope our new journal 'Euphorbia World' is more accessible to the average Euphorbia-lover.
Obviously I agreed, but finding more data about this plant wasn't easy. The first nine parts of "The Euphorbia Journal", the book of reference for every euphorbia-lover, does not mention Euphorbia punicea at all. Only in part 10 can a picture of the inflorescence be found. This picture of Euphorbia punicea serves as an example of the enormous variability of the genus Euphorbia. With the help of especially Pjotr Lawant I finally managed to sort out the most important data.

As mentioned before and clearly visible in the accompanying pictures, the inflorescence is really remarkable. The inflorescence is quite similar to the inflorescence of the Poinsettia or Christmas Star, Euphorbia pulcherrima, probably the most cultivated euphorbia. This inflorescence is characterized by the formation of a cyme at the tip of a branch, surrounded by a wreath of 'normal' leaves. These normal leaves in Euphorbia punicea are however not green but an intense red. In this way the inflorescence is quite large and striking.

euphorbia punicea
euphorbia punicea 

All euphorbias of the subgenus Poinsettia, to which E. punicea belongs, are characterized by a similar inflorescence, though not always red but sometimes white or yellow.
Also the geographic distribution of the subgenus Poinsettia is remarkable: namely America. The fact that interesting euphorbias grow between the cacti will be new to many of us, and only sporadically do we find something about these discoveries in succulent literature. Often these euphorbias belong to the tuberous species, the so-called geophytes. In wintertime they lose all their leaves and stalks. As a bonus they start the growing season with spectacular flowering before the production of leaves. Two of these species are described in the Cactus and Succulent Journal of U. S., namely Euphorbia radians and Euphorbia strigosa. In the journal both species were pictured with their inflorescences, truly very special.

Robert Mayer found Euphorbia radians during a Mexico trip though his aim was to find cacti. Thanks to his wide interest in all plants this tuber was put on the world stage. Most likely there are more collectors who have found similar things, as it seems that this species has a wide distribution.

Another species that is available on a small scale is Euphorbia leucocephala. Its natural habitat is in Central America, that is Costa Rica, Guatemala and Panama. The seed of this species can be bought at Koehres by the name of Euphorbia sp. Tsimbazaza. This is the name of a botanical garden on Madagascar. And indeed, according to my information this species does grow wild on this island. So by this detour this plant ended up in our collections.

A plant that is found more often in collections is Euphorbia cyathophora. E. cyathophora looks much like E. pulcherrima but the inflorescence has no wreath of entirely red leaves. There is only a touch of red at the base.

As I said before in the introduction, the natural habitat of Euphorbia punicea is in Jamaica. According the "Flora of Jamaica" it grows commonly in the mountains and forms a bush or a tree 3 metres high, or sometimes even 10 metres high.

The inflorescence appears to be very variable, this variation should be examined further so an accurate description of the species can be written. So far this has lead to the description of a synonym: Euphorbia troyana.

euphorbia punicea drawing

Thanks to its frequent appearance in its natural habitat and its striking good looks, Euphorbia punicea has been known a long time. It was introduced to England by a Matthew Wallen in 1778 and was described 10 years later by Swartz. After another 30 years (1818) it was described in some detail in an article in Curtis's Botanical Magazine. This article was accompanied by a beautiful copperplate, for a collector a precious possession.


In Curtis's Botanical Magazine we also find some clues regarding the culture of Euphorbia punicea. It flowers from Christmas until midsummer. This was indeed the case for the plant which is illustrated on the pictures accompanying this article and is appropriate for all the plants belonging to the subgenus Poinsettia, for these are all so called short day flowering plants. Very luckily for its grower, these big flowers are easily produced and the plants are said to be easily propagated by cuttings or seeds. My own experience on this subject is that cuttings can be rooted only with great difficulty and are very slow. After pollinating the female flowers with pollen from the same plant, as we have only one clone in cultivation, it seems at first successful, because at first fruits seem to develop. But after some time these wilt and seeds are never produced.
If you are able to acquire a plant of Euphorbia punicea, you have a valuable addition to your collection, as its magnificent caudex is decorated by a huge bright red crown in spring.


Curtis's Botanical Magazine, (1818). Euphorbia punicea. Scarlet-flowered spurge. Vol. 45. Fawcett, W., & Rendle A. W. (1920). Flora of Jamaica. London.
The gardeners' Chronicle (1881). Euphorbia punicea. April 23.
Berger, A., (1907). Sukkulente Euphorbien.
Mostul, B. L., & Chazaro Basanez, M. (1996). Two geophytic Euphorbias from Western Mexico. C. & S. Journal (U.S.). Vol. 68.
Koutnik, D. L., (1997). Making sense of succulent spurges. The Euphorbia Journal