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Euphoric Over Euphorbia: 5 Perennials Every Garden Needs

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Euphoric Over Euphorbia: 5 Perennials Every Garden Needs

July 8, 2013

Every now and then, during the course of the year, I like to take a sideways glance at my own garden, but also the gardens that I visit, walk past, lie in and drink wine, endure the rigors of the playground in, etc., and congratulate the plants that I think are doing really remarkably well considering how tiring life can be.

Above: Euphorbia in the garden. Photograph by Uli Harder via Flickr.

As I am short of time and patience, these tend to be plants that manage to perform over a long period, need little attention, and just get on with it, as my mother would say. They are not the bright, shining divas of the plant world; the shooting stars that dazzle and dance and then fade away. No, they are more often than not the workhorses that hold our garden together, giving it substance and texture, and make us look like really clever gardeners.

For the last month or so, I have been saying, “oh, well done you” to the euphorbias. The various ones in my garden are about to start going over and so I wanted to say a little salutary hooray to them before we all forget about them. Although, many manage to still look marvelous even when the inflorescence is past its best, either being evergreen stalwarts or fading so prettily to other colors.

I love euphorbias (except the ones that are poinsettias in their spare time). I don’t care that they have caustic, white poison running through their veins–just remember to wear gloves if you are manhandling them and don’t let the children eat them. I think they are simply magnificent–all acid greens and elegant, sculptural, alien-invasion type shapes. They like so many other plants, make their colors sing and sizzle just by standing next to them. Being Mediterranean in origin, they sometimes complain about our long wet winters and lose the will to live. I then pull it up, and pop in another one and carry on.

Although, saying that you like euphorbias is like saying you like sweets in general, and while you like sherbet suckers you loathe fizzy cola bottles. It is one of the largest, most varied genuses of plants that there is. There are about 2,000 different varieties, with gardeners using a pipsqueak 150 of these. The genus is made up of annuals, biennials, evergreen, semi-evergreen, herbaceous perennials, deciduous or evergreen sub-shrubs, succulents, shrubs, and trees. If you were standing at the Pick-n-Mix, you would be well and truly stumped for choice.

So, as we would be here all year if I went through them all, I am going to have a quick skedaddle through some of my favorites–ones that I like to use myself or have seen used very successfully in other gardens.

Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii is a hardworking yet fabulouse looking garden plant. An upright, evergreen shrub with enormous loo-brush shaped blooms (well, technically they are called cyathia) with purply-brown eyes. It is the zingiest acid green, and is very dominant in the border. It looks heaven with pinks, oranges, and purples, and is all architectural and interesting to look at. Sometimes it can be annoying and not flower.

A really useful evergreen shrub is Euphorbia mellifera (honey spurge). It is not used as much as it should be, perhaps because it is not fully hardy. However, in a sheltered area, perhaps in a sunny corner near the house, it should be fine. It is unbelievably handsome, with caramel colored umbrels, and in the spring gives off wafts of sweet honey.

Euphorbia polychroma is a dear little variety that would do as a good edging or front of the border plant. Pretty yellow-green stars (well–actually it’s that cyathia again) form a tidy little hummock and will look good from mis-spring to mid-summer among your tulips.

Euphorbia griffthii ‘Dixter’ came from the plantsman Christopher Lloyd’s garden at Great Dixter in Sussex. It is slightly darker than its cousin ‘Fireglow’ with the foliage and the inflorescence both tinted a coppery orange-red. It can cope with any position in the garden–from shade to full sun, and might even need to be restricted; after awhile, it is quite vigorous. Especially enjoys being in a “hot” color scheme.

Euphorbia amygaloides ar. robbiae (Mrs. Robb’s Bonnet) is a right old rambler. It will pop up where you hadn’t thought of putting it, but I like that in a plant. It particularly likes a woodland setting. Another shade loving Euphorvia is ‘Velvet Ruby’ (who can resist such a name?), which will emerge red but fade to green through the summer.

Euphorbia palustris is a must. Gorgeous electric lime green bracts stand fall and proud among your late spring and early summer flowers. Fades to  orangey red and then needs needs to be cut down later in the season as it suddenly looks totally naked and sad. I also use it endlessly as a cut flower.

Euphorbias what’s not to like?

For more dispatches from Clemmie Hambro’s garden, see School’s Out: 3 Kids, 11 Baby Chicks, and a Garden in Bloom.

Finally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various perennial plants with our Perennials: A Field Guide.

Finally, get more ideas on how to successfully plant, grow, and care for euphorbia with our Euphorbia: A Field Guide.

Finally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various perennial plants with our Perennials: A Field Guide.

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