How to prune Euphorbia tirucalli (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

How to Prune and Handle Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’

In my new English-Spanish video, landscaper José Arias of Borrego Springs, CA explains and shows how to manage a beautiful succulent with toxic, milky sap: Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’.

En inglés y español, el paisajista José Arias de Borrego Springs, CA explica y muestra cómo podar y manipular árbol de los dedos, una hermosa suculenta que tiene una savia lechosa y tóxica.

About Euphorbia tirucalli 'Sticks on Fire'

This South African succulent, sometimes called firesticks or pencil tree, originated as a sport (offshoot) of larger, solid-green Euphorbia tirucalli. Both are easy to grow in coastal areas of Southern California and Mexico where temperatures stay above 32 degrees. Over time plants get large---up to 15 feet tall.

Be careful pruning it

Like all euphorbias, 'Sticks on Fire' has a white, milky sap. The liquid can cause irritation of the skin and is especially painful and dangerous to the eyes. In the video, Sr. Arias tells how not knowing this sent him to the hospital. Obviously, you shouldn't plant it or any other euphorbia where children and pets play.

Wash your hands correctly

USE MECHANICS' HAND CLEANER. In the video, Sr. Arias advises washing with soap and water. Even better, according to a nursery owner friend, is the hand cleaner mechanics use. Euphorbia sap isn't water soluble, so you risk spreading it if you dilute it. But mechanics' hand cream contains a solvent that breaks down the sap. You can even apply it to globs that stick to clothes, before you launder them. One brand is GoJo (affiliate link).

How much should you cut?

It handles any amount of pruning. I've grown several in planter boxes for years. The same specimens in the ground would likely be huge by now, but I keep mine pruned to under 2 feet. You can see them in the background of my Top 7 No-Fail Succulents video:

Debra Lee Baldwin

What do do with cuttings

Carry them to the green waste bin by the dry branches, with raw ends facing away from you. Or use them to start new plants: Simply stick upright in coarse, friable soil that drains well.

Prune in summer or fall

Best time to trim euphorbias is during the dry season. After winter and spring rains, the plants may become engorged with sap that may squirt when limbs are cut.

Plan for drips

In my video, cuttings land on a dirt bank, so dripping sap doesn't matter. When I prune mine, I set cuttings on newspaper to catch milky puddles. Then I wrap the newspaper around the cuttings when I transport them. The latex sap doesn't damage hardscape, but it's sticky, and I don't want to track it into my house.

Essential items

Note that when pruning Euphorbia tirucalli, Sr. Arias wears gloves, long sleeves and trousers (so sap doesn't get on his skin), plus sunglasses. Instead of short pruners, he uses long-handled "bypass loppers."

Long-handled pruners

Long-handled pruners (bypass loppers) let you trim euphorbia branches with precision while staying well away from dripping cuts. They're useful for many other pruning tasks as well.

Why grow 'Sticks on Fire'?

It's colorful and practical. As far as I'm concerned, it's main downside is that it's frost-tender. Apart from occasional trimming (every three or four years), it needs no care at all. Here are seven examples.

'Sticks on Fire' as Firebreak plant (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Its liquid sap makes 'Sticks on Fire' an effective firebreak (shown here in Dr. Camille Newton's garden).

'Sticks on Fire' in garden (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

It repeats the red of aloes in midwinter

'Sticks on Fire' and agaves (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

'Sticks on Fire' needs no more water nor care than large agaves, and contrasts beautifully with them in color and texture.

'Sticks on Fire' with boulders (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

It makes a statement in any landscape, especially amid large boulders.

'Sticks on Fire' backdrop hedge (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

'Sticks on Fire' makes an easy-care hedge and backdrop plant.

'Sticks on Fire' with aloes (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

It perfectly frames other large succulents.

Euphorbias in garden with pink wall (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

It offers design repetitions and contrasts not possible with other dry-garden plants. 

Bottom Line: Follow José's simple tips on how to trim and manage Euphorbia tirucalli (arbol de los dedos), and it will be an enhancement to your landscape for years to come.

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  1. Debra Lee Baldwin on July 27, 2021 at 3:58 pm

    Succulent expert Duke Benadom writes: “You may wish to use to word ‘caustic’ along with ‘toxic’ meaning the plant is harmful from its exudates, along with its poisonous properties.” (An exudate is that which is exuded; i.e. a secretion. “Caustic” means “able to burn or corrode organic tissue by chemical action.”)

  2. Mark Evans on September 11, 2021 at 11:23 am

    I loved Jose’; what a sweet guy! Thanks for the info. While watching the video I started getting an itch on my face!

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on September 11, 2021 at 11:58 am

      Ha! I know, right? Like talking about mosquito bites.

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