When Lee Belanger, a volunteer at Collier-Seminole State Park wrote in the Fort Myers Florida Weekly, “When is a weed a weed and not a wildflower? Perhaps when it is not wanted or appreciated,” he was thinking about Euphorbia cyathophora a.k.a. the Florida poinsettia, Painted-leaf or Fire-On-The-Mountain – because while the plant is often mistaken for a weed, it offers variety in the right spot and nourishment for the pollinators.
The Euphorbia genus is large and diverse ranging from our pretty little Florida poinsettia to large and long-lived trees. Most of you are probably more familiar with its popular cultivated relation, the Christmas poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), native to Mexico.
In northeast Florida, the Florida poinsettia is an annual that can thrive from spring to winter. It grows to about 2 feet tall and 1 foot wide. It prefers full sun or part shade, average moisture and sandy soil. Although its most showy feature are its leaves, it produces inconspicuous flowers that form seed capsules that pop open to spread the seeds. As a result, it can become quite aggressive from the seed dispersal.
Bees, butterflies and moths are attracted to the flowers for nectar and pollen and it is a host plant for the Ello sphinx moth.
Warning: Our Florida poinsettia, like most Euphorbia contains a milky sap that that can irritate the skin so wear gloves and take precautions when handling the plant, including hand weeding. One of my fellow gardeners rubbed his eyes after handling the plant and it resulted in an irritation that required a doctor’s intervention! However, interestingly, lab tests have shown that the sap may contain agents that can aid in healing wounds.
Although it can become overly aggressive, it can still be used in as an accent plant by selective weeding and allowing a small patch to become a focal point in a garden.
By the way, the Christmas poinsettia came to America by way of John Poinsett, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico in the early 1800’s who admired the plant and sent cuttings to Robert Buist who named it Euphorbia pulcherrima, which means “the most beautiful euphorbia” and, hence, one of its common names in honor of Mr. Poinsett.
—— This post was contributed by master gardener and tree steward, Walter Bryant, who is also a member of the Native Plant Society.