The Euphorbiaceae, or spurge, family contains around 7,000 species in 218 genera, comprising herbaceous annuals and perennials, woody shrubs and trees, plus a few climbers. Many members, such as cassava, are important sources of food. Others are used for their waxes and oils, or as medicine, while some have toxic fruit, leaves, or sap. Although plants in the spurge family can be found all over the world, they’re mostly found in temperate and tropical regions.
The family takes its name from Euphorbus, the Greek physician of king Juba II of Numidia, who married the daughter of Anthony and Cleopatra. He wrote that one of the cactus-like euphorbias was a powerful laxative. Similarly, the common name ‘spurge’ comes from the Middle English/Old French ‘espurge’, due to purgative nature of the plant’s sap.
Flowers in the spurge family rarely have petals, and tend to be surrounded by colourful bracts (leaf-like structures located just below flower clusters). Male and female flowers are usually borne on the same plant. Leaves are usually simple and are arranged alternately along the stems.
Here are some popular members of the Euphorbiaceae family.
Lime-green flowers of Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae
There are many plants within this genus, including annuals, perennials, shrubs and succulents. All have milky sap and small flowers held in cupped, often colourful bracts. Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae is a particularly lovely variety, bearing lime-green bracts above glossy, dark green leaves.
H x S: 70cm x 100cm
Castor-oil plant, Ricinus communis
Spiky, red fruit and maroon-green leaves of the castor oil plant, Ricinus communis (photo credit: Getty Images)
The castor-oil plant is a fantastic tender perennial, which is grown as an annual in the UK and used in tropical planting schemes. It bears large, green or dark bronze-red, star-shaped leaves, which act as a wonderful foil for a range of other tropical plants. However its seeds are extremely toxic and are fatal if eaten.
H x S: 100cm x 100cm
Poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima
Red poinsettia houseplant
Grown in the UK as a Christmas houseplant, poinsettia is an evergreen shrub with large green leaves, native to Mexico. In winter it forms bright red, leaf-like bracts. Be careful – all parts of the plant are toxic and may be harmful if eaten.
H x S: 30cm x 20cm
Croton, Codiaeum variegatum pictum
Multicoloured leaves of croton, Codiaeum variegatum pictum (photo credit: Getty Images)
Croton is an evergreen shrub native to Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia. It bears large, thick, glossy evergreen leaves in a variety of different colours including green, red and pink, with strongly veining. In the UK it’s grown as a houseplant.
H x S: 50cm x 50cm