If you’ve driven through the any of the Mediterranean countries in spring, you are undoubtedly familiar with the common Mediterranean spurge, Euphorbia characias (ker-ack-iss). For years, I admired this in virtually every English garden book, but always failed in my attempts to keep it alive in our garden.
Years later, it finally hit me what I was doing wrong. Euphorbia characias is a short-lived perennial – think 3-4 years max. I was purchasing clonal selections and expecting them to last, while not providing an environment where they would be prone to reseeding, which ensures that you actually keep the plant around. Despite needing to reseed to survive, it’s not a plant that’s prone to getting out of hand.
Euphorbia characias like dry, well-drained soils, especially those that are gravelly. We have also discovered that rich, amended beds also allow for reseeding as long as aren’t heavily irrigated. Now, we allow the seed heads to remain until the seed have dropped, at which time they are cut back to the blue foliage. We have found that leaving the seed heads on the plant too long actually shortens the plants already short lifespan.
Not only is Euphorbia characias an incredible ornamental, but it also has the longest duration of use in Western medicine. Recent research has found the plant to have a wide array of medicinal compounds. These compounds have activity as antioxidants, as pesticides (both anti-viral and anti-microbial), as wound healers, to treat hypoglycemia, as an anti-aging agent (preventing free radical chain reactions), and as a disease (HIV) enzyme inhibitor. I’d say, that’s a pretty impressive resume. Hardiness is Zone 7a-10b.