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SCVNews.com | Opinion/Commentary: Can Garden Plants Kill You? | 06-27-2013
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Let's Go Outside | Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Jun 27, 2013

evelynevandersande_mugPart 1 of the story

A friend of mine wrote this:

“I ran into an old friend doing gardening this morning and stopped to chat. She had a pile of plants she was weeding out, and I was trying to identify them. There was one I did not know, so I took a piece of it to identify later.

“I wanted to make it a little shorter, and it would not break off with my fingernails, so I bit it to shorten it.

“Stupid mistake No. 1: If you do not 110-percent know a plant, do not bite into it, even if you do not swallow any of it.

“My mouth started burning in about 10 minutes. My tongue and even my teeth were burning. I tried rinsing my mouth with water, but it only made it worse.

Euphorbia peplus

Euphorbia peplus

“Eventually I went to the nursery and learned that it was a euphorbia (in the wulfenii family). The poison in euphorbia is very, very strong, can make you blind and even kill you.

“There are more than 2,000 euphorbias. They are generally grouped with cactus, and one characteristic is the milky sap. Even an hour later, the burn was just getting stronger, so I checked remedies on Google. I started to sip on milk, which slowed the burn considerably, but I started to vomit and even the next day vomited three more times.

Euphorbia peplus

Euphorbia peplus

“The strength of the reaction surprised me. I should have been rinsing my mouth with the milk but not swallowing it.”

“Not too many doctors are familiar with plant-related issues, so it would be good if your readers could learn to identify this plant. Euphorbia is a common plant because it is easy to grow and drought-tolerant. You might even have it growing in your own back yard. It is bright green, looks a bit like mistletoe, but grows low on the ground with leaves similar to chickweed and starting to have flowers. Live and learn, right?”


Part 2 of the story

Another friend saw this story and responded:

“I did exactly the same thing with euphorbia 10 years ago. I did not bite it, but a drop of the milky sap felt on my lip.   I did not swallow, but the reaction was fast and scary. I thought I was going to die, and my better half called 9-1-1. Things got better … after my heart started back up, after I started breathing again and after I could feel my face again.

Euphorbia tirucalli

Euphorbia tirucalli

“The one consolation I have from that little, 3-inch twig: I have now a forest of dozens and eurphorbia plants in my yard. You cannot kill them unless we have a strong frost. They are known as stick plant, or euphorbia (tirucalli).”


Part 3 of the story

I was walking in Old Pasadena, on Colorado Boulevard, in the lovely part where you see nice stores and fancy restaurants. I passed by one with a big terrace on the wide sidewalk where people were starting to eat lunch, when I stopped dead in my tracks. On each side of the terrace were two large planters full of the stick plant, very juicy and vigorous.

I have young grandchildren, and I suddenly had visions of a bored 3-year-old, while the parents are involved in their conversation, starting to play with this deadly plant.

The plants have become popular; they have been used as mass plantings in the Central Garden at the Getty Center.

Euphorbia tirucalli

Euphorbia tirucalli

You cannot assume all plants with a white, milky sap are dangerous; the dandelion flower has such milky sap, but the tender leaves in the spring are delicious as a salad, and safe.

The plant found by my friend who put it in her mouth is called petty spurge, or euphorbia peplus. It is lovely, green, and a good self-seeding plant, prolific in the California climate. It comes from Europe and has become naturalized through North America. It is an erect weed and a pretty plant. Check out the photos.

In traditional medicine, that sap has been used to remove sun spots, warts and non-melanoma skin cancer. This is done by carefully putting some of the latex sap on the desired spot; the sap “burns off’ any skin that it comes into contact with. It is extremely important to avoid all contact with the eyes and other mucus membranes. Using the sap near the eye or mouth is not advised, as sweating, rubbing and washing may carry the sap to a vital organ.

Research is being done by Peplin Biotech to use this sap for certain skin cancers (basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas), and the results are promising.

Euphorbia tirucalli is also known as the firestick plant, Indian tree spurge, naked lady, pencil tree, stick on fire, or milk bush.

Euphorbia tirucalli

Euphorbia tirucalli

This was the one mentioned by my friend who stopped breathing. It has been used in traditional medicine in many cultures to remove warts. The milky latex is extremely toxic and can cause temporary blindness for a few days. Symptoms can get worse after 12 hours, and deaths have been recorded.

Look at the photos and become acquainted with these plants.  Even if just a few of you can now identify those two plants, it’s worth it – because it could be very important.

They are in our gardens, in the garden center, and even in the planter alongside restaurants. Plants look innocent and friendly, green and pretty, and most of the time, we have nothing to be concerned about.

Just as you have learned to be worried about the thorns on a rose, have a look at these photos, be aware of these plants’ potent sap, and enjoy your gardening in safety.


Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at Placerita Canyon Nature Center for 27 years. She lives in Newhall.


Euphorbia peplus

Euphorbia peplus


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