How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Euphorbia Lactea

Euphorbia lactea is an unusual succulent growing in weird and wonderful patterns and colors. Learn how to grow and care for yours from gardening expert Rachel Garcia.

Caring for Euphorbia Lactea

Contents

The wonky look of Euphorbia lactea will add a character to your garden that no other plant can. It has three-sided, candelabra arms and a tall, lanky stem, creating a wobbly silhouette. In fact, Euphorbia lactea nearly resembles a child’s drawing.

Adding to E. lactea’s charm are short spines along the edges. They’re small but still sharp. The whole plant is green with mottled white stripes. This inspired the common nickname mottled spurge, among many others.

It doesn’t seem like it, but mottled spurge is a shrub, not a cactus. This is due to the presence of sap and the absence of large flowers. Also unlike cacti, Euphorbia lactea is a tropical plant. It’s native to India, Sri Lanka, and other areas in tropical Asia.

Euphorbia lactea is a challenging plant. It has specific watering needs and is dangerously toxic. Once settled in though, it pretty much takes care of itself. It’s perfect for neglectful gardeners willing to make an initial effort.

Plant Overview

Euphorbia Lactea
Plant Type Succulent
Family Euphorbiaceae
Genus Euphorbia
Species Euphorbia lactea
Exposure Full sun to partial shade
Height 2′-15′
Watering Requirements Low
Maintenance Low
Soil Type Sandy, well-draining

What is Euphorbia Lactea?

A large succulent plant that has thick, twisted, fan like features that blend from a light greenish-white color to a bright pink color around the tops of each section.
The Euphorbia lactea can reach a height of 15 feet depending on its growing conditions.

Commonly called candelabra cactus or dragon bones, Euphorbia lactea has a height potential of 15 feet. How tall your mottled spurge grows depends on the conditions you give it. When grown indoors in a pot, it will reach two feet at most. Left in the ground unchecked, it will grow much taller.

You’ll notice the most growth in spring and summer. If you live within USDA Zones 10-11, your mottled spurge can live outdoors year-round. In these zones, it’s commonly grown as a fence or hedge plant. However, mottled spurge also makes a great houseplant. It can stay inside all year or move in and out depending on the weather.

Euphorbia lactea flowers rarely and usually only in the wild. Its yellow-tinged flowers are considerably small and grow at the edge of the plant. You may see your dragon bones grow small teardrop leaves on the tips of the stem. Unfortunately, these cute details usually fall off pretty quickly.           

Like all plants in the Euphorbia genus, this plant is entirely poisonous, from root to sap. If you have curious pets or children, this is not the plant for you. Be cautious when handling too. The toxic sap, called latex, will ooze from stem cuts and can irritate your skin. Gardeners should always wear gloves when handling E. lactea.

Because some varieties don’t grow roots well, the top of Euphorbia lactea ‘Cristata’ is often grafted onto the base of another plant. The most common host is Euphorbia neriifolia. The combination of these two plants is named coral cactus and cleverly referred to as Frankenstein cactus.

Types of Euphorbia Lactea

There are several interesting cultivars of this species to look out for.

Euphorbia lactea var. Cristata

Close up of a succulent plant that has a thick, textured, fan like feature, that blends from a light greenish-white color to a bright pink color around the top of of the fanned flower. Large, long, thick leaves surround it.
The Crested euphorbia has a unique wavy, fan like shape.

This common form changes the shape of Euphorbia lactea drastically. Crested euphorbia has wavy paddles that make it much fuller than the sparse original form. The edges of the stem align into an s-shape.

Variegated Euphorbia lactea

Close up of a succulent plant that has a thick, textured, fan like feature, that blends from a white color to a bright pink color around the top of of the fanned flower. Large, long, thick leaves surround it.
The Variegated Euphorbia will typically manifest on the ‘crested’ variety and will be splashed with yellow, pink or violet colors.

Variegation is most commonly found on crested euphorbias. Instead of simple green and white, these varieties are painted with yellow, pink, or violet. These are especially vulnerable to direct sun and heat.

Euphorbia lactea ‘White Ghost’

Close up of a tall succulent plant that has several tall, skinny, thick, spiky, white stems, with dark brown spikes lining the ridges down each stem.
The “white ghost” is typical in these ‘non-crested’ varieties.

This is the white variegated form. Unlike the other variegated Euphorbia lactea, you’ll usually see this one in the upright, non-crested form. Because of the light color, this plant is extra sensitive to direct light and can be burned easily.

Planting

Close up of a several succulent plants in orange containers, that have thick, textured, fan like features, that blend from a light white color to a bright pink color around the top of of the fanned flower. They have thick, spiky, stems and large, long, thick leaves surround it.
As with most succulents these too will need well-draining container and the proper succulent soil.

Euphorbia lactea thrives in warm climates and well-draining soil. When planting in the ground, choose a sunny spot that receives at least six hours of direct sunlight daily. The soil should be sandy or gravelly to ensure good drainage.

Begin by digging a hole slightly larger than the root ball of the plant. Place the plant in the hole wearing gloves, ensuring that the base of the stem is level with the soil surface. Backfill and gently firm around the roots to eliminate air pockets.

After establishment, water sparingly, allowing the soil to dry out completely between waterings.

When planting Euphorbia lactea in a pot, select a container with drainage holes to prevent waterlogging. Use a cactus or succulent potting mix, designed to drain quickly.

Fill the pot about a third of the way with the potting mix. Carefully place the plant in the pot, ensuring it is centered. Fill in around the plant with more potting mix, gently pressing down to secure the plant.

Place the pot in a location that receives bright, indirect sunlight. Indoor plants can benefit from being placed near a south-facing window. Additionally, rotate the pot periodically to ensure even growth and exposure to light.

How to Grow

As mentioned, this plant has specific watering needs. Besides that, it is fairly low-maintenance. Here’s everything you need to know.

Light

Close up of a succulent plant that has thick, twisted, fan like features that blend from a light green to a thin pink color around the tips of each section.
Some varieties can easily sunburn if left in direct sunlight.

Full to partial sun is ideal for mottled spurge. However, be cautious placing it in full sun. When exposed to direct light and heat in summer, it can easily sunburn. It can also be burned if exposed to bright light suddenly.

When moving your mottled spurge, do so gradually so it can acclimate. 

Water

A large succulent plant that has thick, green, twisted, fan like features that have brown, dried spots around the tops of each section.
Let your Euphorbia lacteas dry out completely in between waterings.

To water, soak the soil until water leaks out of the drainage hole. Let the soil dry out completely before watering again.

During the summer, water your Euphorbia lactea at least once a week. Drastically cut down on water during the winter. Only water it once (or not at all) during this time, depending on soil conditions.

Because of its varying water demands, you should know how to tell if your false cactus needs more or less water. When overwatered, it will turn yellow, brown, and mushy. Underwatered false cactus will begin to wrinkle and wilt. This plant will bounce back faster when underwatered than overwatered.

Soil

A small succulent plant that has thick, green, twisted, fan like features planted in a black container filled with small rocks.
There are many good quality cactus or succulent soils on the market to choose from.

The soil needed for Euphorbia lactea is typical for any cactus or succulent. It has to be well-draining so that your plant is never sitting in water. This is vital to keeping it alive.

There are many soils made specifically for succulents and cacti. If you already have the materials, you can mix your own well-draining soil. After planting, regularly check that the soil is draining well and make adjustments as needed.

Temperature & Humidity

A field of several succulent plants, that have thick, textured, fan like features, that blend from a light white color to a bright pink color around the top of of the fanned flower. They have thick, spiky, stems and large, long, thick leaves surround it.
Do not let your Euphorbia lactea plants be exposed to temperatures below 40°F.

Euphorbia lactea cannot handle frost. 40°F (4°C) is the lowest temperature this plant may tolerate. This shrub grows best when it’s warm, so we recommend not testing lower temperatures. Because it comes from a tropical climate, this plant handles humidity well.

Fertilizing

Close up of a thick, white, succulent stem that has a saw like textured on the rides and red pointed spikes.
Dilute your fertilizer to prevent ‘fertilizer burn’ on your mottled spurges roots.

Give your mottled spurge a half-strength fertilizer every month from spring to fall. This will give it an extra boost for the growing season. Fertilizers low in nitrogen will provide the best results. Do not fertilize in winter. This is the dormant period for many species of succulent and cactus.

The roots of mottled spurge are susceptible to fertilizer burn. To prevent this, dilute your liquid fertilizer to half or a quarter strength and apply it right before watering.

Maintenance

Woman holding a small succulent plant in orange container, that has a thick, textured, fan like feature, that blends from a white color to a bright pink color around the top of of the fanned flower. It has a thick, spiky, stems.
After purchasing, repot your Euphorbia lactea in a container at least two inches larger than the one it came in.

When you buy it, your euphorbia will probably come in a small container and general garden-store soil. You’ll need to repot it into something bigger and better draining.

Choose a container about two inches larger in diameter and heavy enough to balance out the height. You don’t want it to become top-heavy and fall over.

For such a tall plant, dragon bones has small roots. This gives it the benefit of rarely being rootbound. When you remove it from the pot, gently dust off the roots and massage them out if they’re clumped together. Repot it in dry, well-draining cactus soil.

It may be tempting to treat your dragon bones to a drink, but hold off on the water for a couple weeks. This will give the roots time to heal from any damage.

Because of its spines and toxic sap, safety is your top priority when repotting. Remember to always wear gloves. For added protection, cover your arms and legs and wear safety goggles, especially if you’re repotting a large Euphorbia lactea. If your plant has multiple stems growing close together, protect them from each other by padding them with newspaper before moving.

Propagation

Man holding a small, long, spiky, succulent stem that has been cut.
The basic Euphorbia lactea variety can be propagated easily by cuttings.

When it comes to propagation by cuttings, you’ll have the best luck with the basic Euphorbia lactea. The crested and variegated forms don’t root well, so they’re often propagated by grafting. Before getting started on either, remember to cover up.

Take your cutting during the spring or summer, when your mottled spurge is growing the most. Using a sharp, sterile knife, slice off one of the arms where it connects to the stem. If you encounter a flow of sap here, wash it away with cold water.

After taking your cutting, let it dry out for a week to two weeks. Once the cut is calloused over, stick your cutting upright in the soil. Mist the soil with water or leave it dry until the roots are established.

Euphorbia lactea roots best in heat, so place it outside or on a heating mat.

Grafting A Frankenstein Cactus

Close up of a large, fan like, succulent flower with thick, textured ridges in it and a light green color. The section has been grafted into a larger stem of another succulent plant.
The ‘crested’ and ‘variegated’ varieties will need to be grafted into a Euphorbia neriifolia.

It’s a complicated process, but if you want to make yourself a coral cactus from your Euphorbia lactea, you’ll have to graft it to a Euphorbia neriifolia. Here’s how to do it:

  • Choose an E. lactea cutting and E. neriifolia that is young and healthy. It should look like they’ll fit together.
  • Cut a V in the E. neriifolia, removing the upper portion to make the base of the plant.
  • Cut a matching V in the E. lactea that will fit exactly.
  • Piece together the two V cuts with lactea on top. Check that there aren’t any gaps between the two, which can lead to rot.
  • Seal the V with grafting wax.
  • Wrap the whole graft in twine.
  • Wait 2-3 weeks for the plants to heal.
  • Remove the twine.

After that, all there is left is to enjoy your new Frankenstein cactus!

Common Problems

Although it’s a pain during maintenance, the sap of false cactus is efficient at keeping pests and diseases away. However, every plant has weaknesses that you should know about.

Unwanted Stems

Close up of a tall succulent plants that have several tall, skinny, thick, spiky, white stems, with dark brown spikes lining the ridges down each stem.
Keep your succulent healthy by cutting away any dead or weak looking stems.

If your E. lactea is grafted onto another plant, there’s a possibility that the base plant will grow stems around the euphorbia. You can let it grow, but if you don’t like the look, simply prune back the unwanted stems.

Pests

Close up of tiny, white, spider like bugs crawling at the bas of a dark green succulent plant.
Mealy bugs are attracted to the sap that your Euphorbia lactea produces.

Mealybugs are a common pest always hungry for succulent sap. These insects are small and build cottony white nests. Infestations will cause the plant to turn yellow, wilt, and eventually die.

Remove mealybugs by dabbing them with a cotton swab dipped in diluted rubbing alcohol (70% or lower). Insecticidal soap is a common remedy for mealybugs, but not recommended for Euphorbia lactea as it can damage the plant.

Spider mites may also appear on your mottled spurge. These are exceptionally tiny arachnids that make small webs on plants. Wash them away with a strong spray of water. Alternatively, apply thoroughly diluted neem oil to the stem.

Diseases

Tall green succulent stem with rot around the base of it, sitting in a pot filled with white powdery soil.
Water and baking soda is an easy way to help cure powdery mildew.

Powdery mildew looks exactly how it sounds: white and moldy. It appears when there’s poor air circulation and humidity. Like every disease, it’s best eradicated early on.

To remove powdery mildew without damaging your plant, wash the plant with a baking soda mixture. Dissolve one tablespoon of baking soda into a gallon of water for the perfect mildew remedy.

The most common threat to succulent-like plants is root rot. Even though it usually starts in the roots, any part of your Euphorbia lactea can fall victim to this condition. Rot begins when the plant is constantly wet (a result of overwatering and/or poor drainage). Rotted sections will become brownish-black and mushy.

If you notice even the smallest amount of rot, you’ll need to take action right away. If left to spread, the entire plant can quickly die. 

Remove your plant from its container so you can examine the whole thing. Carefully cut off any parts that are rotted. Once the plant is rot-free, leave it out of the soil to dry for several days. Once the wounds have scabbed over, replant your Dragon Bones in new soil.

Frequently Asked Questions

I got sap on me! What do I do?

Euphorbia latex is very dangerous, so wash it off right away. It dries like clear glue, so ensure that you get every bit off. Even after washing, your skin may be severely irritated. If any gets in your eyes, seek medical attention immediately since it can lead to blindness. Wearing gloves is highly recommended.

Why does my crested Euphorbia lactea have some branches that are straight?

It’s normal for crested euphorbia to revert back to its original form, although the cause is unknown. If you don’t like the appearance of the straight branches, just prune them back.

Final Thoughts

This alien-like plant is a unique addition to any succulent collection. You need to be cautious when handling, but beyond that, you shouldn’t encounter any problems.

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