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Jul 13, 2009: Euphorbia sikkimensis

Euphorbiaceae consists of about 320 genera and between 7500 and 9000 species, making it one of the largest plant families. The family is for the most part comprised of herbs, but it includes several tree and shrubby species among its ranks as well. Though the majority of species are native to either southeastern Asia or the tropical regions of the Americas, the family is quite broadly distributed, ranging into southern Europe, the Middle East, and South Africa as well. In general, specimens bear alternating leaves along with monoecious (i.e., separate male and female) flowers, and fill their stems with a toxic sap of milky-white latex. The family is perhaps best known for the raw materials that one of its genera (Hevea) offers to the production of rubber.

Euphorbia, which is named for the ancient Greek physician Euphorbus, is a diverse genus of over 2000 annual and perennial herb, shrub, and tree species for which, historically, humans have found a number of ornamental and medicinal uses. The genus, first described by Linnaeus in the 18th century, occurs mainly in the dryer regions of the tropics and is particularly diverse in Africa. Though different habitat and climate conditions have caused Euphorbia species to undergo divergent evolution, many of these African species find similarly succulent (water-retaining) counterparts in southwestern North America and in Madagascar. The genus's common name, spurge, emerged from the medieval and early modern use of several species' sap as purgatives.

Euphorbia sikkimensis, the plant featured in today's photo, can grow to about 90 centimetres in colonies of herbaceous, mostly unbranched stems arrayed with alternating, conspicuously midribbed leaves of dark green. In the early summer months, the plant crowns itself with a series of bright red buds that later erupt into softly-leveled, star-shaped inflorescences of lime-green and vivid yellow. The species is native to the elevated forests and alpine meadows of southeastern Asia (India, Bhutan, China, Myanmar, Nepal), and its root is commonly put toward medicinal ends. Our plant is sited near the entrance of the David C. Lam Asian Garden, and came to us in 1978 from Hillier Nursery.

Jun 17, 2009: Euphorbia griffithii 'Fireglow'

Euphorbia griffithii 'Fireglow'

With today's posting, we welcome summer student, Stephen Coughlin, whose duties include Botany Photo of the Day. This entry was written by Stephen and the photo was taken by Eric La Fountaine.

Euphorbiaceae (the spurge family), which consists of around 300 genera and 7500 species, is native to both the temperate and tropical climate zones. Euphorbia griffithii is a metre-high herbaceous perennial that hails from the eastern Himalayas to the mountains of Myanmar (Burma) and western China. It ignites into bloom in early summer. The cultivar 'Fireglow', which is more deeply coloured than the species, welcomes visitors at the entrance to UBC Botanical Garden with a series of chromatic juxtapositions simultaneously subtle and strong: on its floral bracts, rich reds mix with searing yellows and oranges as if on the palette of an Old Master, while the dark burgundy of the stem and the green of the waxy leaves lend further contrast and contribute to the intensity of the blazing blooms above. This intensity culminates in the fall, when the floral apparatus turns brick red.

The vividness of the bloom, which to some suggests a measure of resilience and assertion, is indeed matched by the vigour with which 'Fireglow' confronts its surroundings. The species is robust enough to withstand both hostile pollutants and the vast spectrum of weather conditions associated with Zones 4 through 9; E. griffithii tends toward the invasive, however, at least in garden situations. Paraphrasing renowned gardener and garden writer Christopher Lloyd, the species is aggressive, and its sustained struggles when matched with a similarly dominant species leave the gardener only to referee. In addition to these somewhat bellicose tendencies, 'Fireglow' has another menacing trick up its sleeve. While the plant's capacity to repel the onslaughts of deer and other animals is undoubtedly a benefit in the garden, gardeners beware, for the milky sap that fills the stems of this beautiful spurge is toxic.

For those wishing to explore the plants of the Himalayas, Laboritoire d'Ecologie Alpine has a searchable database, Flora Himalayan Database, which provides links to other Himalayan flora resources (Original French).

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