Euphorbia is a class of more than 2,000 plants that includes a wide range of tough, low-maintenance plants. Commonly called spurges, these sun-loving shrubs include tropicals, like poinsettia, and succulents such as the pencil cactus (Euphorbia tirucalli) and redbird cactus (Euphobia tithymaloides). Neither pencil cactus or redbird cactus are truly cacti but they are just as drought-tolerant and easy to grow.

I’ve always called this plant a redbird cactus but it’s easy to see why some people call it the zig-zag plant.

Like most Euphorbia plants, both redbird and pencil cactus are known by a long list of names based on their appearance. Redbird cactus is also called the zig-zag cactus Jacob’s ladder, Devil’s backbone, Christmas candle cactus, red slipper cactus and slipper plant. Pencil cactus varieties that remain green are also known as pencil tree, milk bush, Indian tree spurge and naked lady. Pencil cactus varieties that turn red from late summer through winter are called fire sticks plant, sticks on fire, or coral plants.

This pencil cactus was one foot tall when purchased four years ago. For the first three years, he lived in ceramic pots increasing in size as he rapidly grew. He was three feet tall when I planted him in the ground in March 2020 and is now close to five feet tall. This variety of pencil cactus stays green regardless of season or amount of sunlight.

Are Euphorbia plants poisonous and toxic to skin and eyes?

Yes, but so are poinsettia, oleander, pothos, sago palm and many other plants in and around your home. All Euphorbia plants release a milky white sap that is toxic if ingested and highly irritating to eyes and skin. I have grown and propagated pencil cactus and redbird cactus for 20+ years, never wearing gloves while taking cuttings or replanting. I have not had skin or eye irritation while living with and planting Euphorbia. My kids have played near and around the plants, retrieving stray soccer and lacrosse balls from beneath the plants without incident. My cats sleep in our succulent garden, stalk lizards there, and have never been harmed by these plants.

Like most everything, there’s a lot of scary stuff on the Internet about poisonous, toxic and harmful Euphorbia plants causing painful rashes and severe eye irritation, even blindness. If you have pets who eat plants, young children who could be near your plants unsupervised, or skin that is easily irritated, you should choose another type of plant. However, if you’re comfortable decorating with live poinsettia in the winter months, you will love growing pencil cactus and redbird cactus year-round. Just use common-sense caution: wear gloves and long-sleeves when planting or repotting Euphorbia plants. Don’t ever touch your eyes when gardening and wash your hands if you come into contact with the milky white sap.

In a pot or not, Euphobia thirve in containers and in the ground, indoors and outside.

My first pencil cactus lived in my second-floor college apartment, then a third-floor room in my sorority house in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Surely a testament to the hardiness of these plants, this rugged pencil cactus named Felix endured fairy lights and Christmas tree ornaments, outright neglect paired with occasional over-watering. I’ve since grown pencil cactus on porches and balconies while living in Northern and Southern California. Here in Northeast Florida, I’ve grown many varieties of Euphobia in containers of all sizes and in the ground with great success. I have propagated new plants by taking cuttings and rooting them first in perlite, then potting soil.

If you want to grow Euphorbia in a container, choose a pot that is just slightly larger than your plant’s root mass. Succulents like to get root-bound and will grow slower in a pot that is too large, focusing on root growth over plant growth. Also, it is essential to choose a pot with good drainage along with light, fast-draining soil. Succulents want their roots to dry out completely between watering.

This redbird cactus is in a large pot, 24-inches in diameter. It is in full sun from noon until sunset. Last year it bloomed from late August through December. This year I learned that I have stunted or delayed blooming by taking cuttings to propagate. Flowers grow at the end of older growth stems that have fewer leaves.
This redbird cactus planted in the ground receives six hours of afternoon-to-evening sun each day. It has not bloomed since it was planted in March 2020. I’m watching those long, leafless older growth stems with my fingers crossed for September.

Four or more hours of bright sunlight. For Fire Sticks the brighter and hotter the better.

Euphorbia as a plant class are known for hardiness and drought-tolerance. Euphorbia-class succulents are exceptionally hardy but even the strongest, most drought-tolerant plants can burn or dry-out in the hot Florida sun. Aim for four hours of sun at a minimum, and six to eight as a maximum. The exception is to this rule is the fire sticks or coral sticks variety of pencil cactus. This strong and beautiful plant thrives in coastal environments because it loves sandy, well-draining soil and is unaffected by salty air.

Fire sticks stalks and leaves turn red through the late fall and winter months and become brighter in color when challenged by lack of water or strong sunlight. My fire sticks plant is a gift from a friend who shares that trait–she’s a force of energy who meets stressful situations and challenges by showing up stronger rather than backing down or walking away. Her fire sticks plant is nearly four feet tall and growing.

This beautiful fire sticks plant is just starting to turn yellowish-red at the end of some stalks. This photo was taken August 31st, by November most of the yellowish-green will have turn to a deep orange or red.

Where can you buy Euphorbia plants?

Your local nursery probably sells Euphorbia plants but they are usually among the higher priced plants. Amazon can connect you with online nurseries who sell pencil cactus and redbird cactus plants. A great way to start growing Euphorbia plants is to get a cutting from a neighbor or friend. If you live in Florida, take a walk around your neighborhood. Chances are, someone is growing Euphorbia. Compliment their lovely plant and they will probably let you take a few cuttings. (Wear gloves, avoid the white sap.) Let the stem dry for a day to two, then plant the cutting in a small container of perlite or potting soil. You can also buy fully rooted Euphorbia plants at the Grow Earthy booth at the Beaches-area outdoor markets. Check the event schedule on the home page.

These small-sized Euphorbia plants were propagated from cuttings. It takes four-to-six weeks for the cuttings to be fully rooted and ready for sale. Grow Earthy sells plants at the Beaches-area outdoor markets.