Sticks-on-fire glow around Fallbrook

Euphorbia tirucalli is also known as stick-on-fire, firestick and pencil stick, among other names. Lucette Moramarco photo
Euphorbia tirucalli is also known as stick-on-fire, firestick and pencil stick, among other names. Lucette Moramarco photo

Succulents have long been popular plants in Southern California due to their drought-resistance, and possibly because of the variety of shapes and textures they add to a landscape.

The euphorbia family of succulents, like any family, has members that are very different in looks. Some are spiny, some are smooth, some have bright red flowers and some have very small flowers that are hardly noticeable. Many of them look like underwater plants and are suitable for an ocean-themed garden on land.

Like most succulents, euphorbia members thrive in the wintertime, especially the euphorbia tirucalli or sticks-on-fire (also called fire stick, finger plant, Indian tree spurge or pencil plant) which turns bright orange to red in cold temperatures.

Shrubs of sticks-on-fire can be seen growing in yards and nurseries all around Fallbrook, noticeable for their glowing color and unique shape which is unlike the rest of the euphorbia family.

While the famous poinsettia belongs to the euphorbia family, it is not a succulent, however, it has a characteristic common to its succulent cousins. They are all toxic or poisonous, to varying degrees.

As a member of the Fallbrook Garden Club and several other garden clubs in the past, Chris Sangster has become an expert on succulents. While she prefers plants that flower, she propagates (grows from cuttings) all kinds of plants for the club, including euphorbia.

Sangster said that the sticks-on-fire shrub can grow to 25 feet tall by 8 to 10 feet wide. The branches are vertical and as thin as pencils, which is why it is also know as the pencil plant. It has small leaves that are not easily seen and drop before the end of the growing season. It has tiny yellow flowers from September to December.

The plant is native to a wide range of land from Madagascar north through tropical and subtropical Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and India. According to Sangster, the sticks-on-fire only needs water about every two to three weeks in summer and none in winter.

The plant should be allowed to dry out before watering again. While that low need for water makes it popular, Sangster advises gardeners to be cautious when caring for this plant as the stems break easily which can be a problem as its milky sap is toxic and can make a person sick.

She suggests wearing disposable gloves when working with sticks-on-fire to avoid skin contact with the sap, and also because the sap on a regular gardening glove will remain toxic long after the plant was handled.

Sangster also said, “When working with this plant use protective goggles, and if you do get it (sap) in the eyes, seek medical attention quickly. For this reason, this plant should also not be planted near paths.”

The plants breakability also makes it unsuitable for homes where there are children, or dogs who like to chew on everything.

Sangster said that people should not exclude the sticks-on-fire plant from their gardens if they like it as it is not a danger if treated with care. It is also an attractive addition to a garden, adding both color and interest.

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