Arno KingPoysean euphorbias

Many years ago I was asked by a keen gardener if I could tell her the name of the plants that she could see on apartment balconies throughout South East Asia. She said that from a distance they looked like azaleas and they flowered all year round.

Year round colour provided by this red flowered Euphorbiia

I must admit I was stumped. All I could think of was Bougainvillea or perhaps Adenium. I was promptly told no, this was not what they were, and I guess my horticultural standing dropped a few notches in her eyes. It was a few years later when visiting Singapore that I put two and two together and saw Poysean Euphorbias in their full glory.

While these plants may look like azaleas from a distance, take a closer look and you will see that their affinity lies more closely with the common Crown-of-thorns (Euphorbia millii).

A plant in full flower is a sight to behold. The top and sides of the plant will be covered in ‘flowers’ of burgundy, red, pink, orange, salmon, cream, yellow or chartreuse. ‘Flowers’ can also be bicoloured – such as cream with a pink edge or salmon with a green centre. Often most of the foliage is obscured from view. Plants stay in ‘flower’ all year round and the ‘flowers’ have a long life.

Now for some botany. To be more precise the colourful ‘flower petals’ are in fact bracts –technically colourful modified leaves. But it gets even more complicated here, as the true flowers are tiny appendages and surrounded by a structure called the involucre. In euphorbias this is termed a cyathia (plural cyathium) and this is what you see nestled in among those colourful bracts.

These plants are exceptionally hardy. They tolerate extended periods of dry weather as well as heavy summer rain with high humidity. They tolerate heat and wind, including salt winds. They will perform with zero maintenance and feeding. However like any plant, a little bit of love and attention will go a long way. And they thrive in pots. No wonder they are such perfect balcony plants.

The name Poysean is used by the Thai Chinese community for the Crown-of-thorns (Euphorbia millii) and some of its early hybrids. It means Eight Saints and refers to the Eight Saints of Chinese mythology. The older Euphorbia hybrids have 8 ‘flowers’ in a bunch. To this day you will see great numbers of these plants growing in Taoist and Buddhist temple gardens.

The origin of these plants is thought to date back to the hybrids between Euphorbia millii and Euphorbia lophogona that were developed by the Somona Nursery in Germany in the early nineties. These plants proved to be popular indoor plants for the European houseplant market. This popularity has continued to increase. However these plants had limited flower colour (generally pink to deep pink) and a small flower size.

The large flowered Poysean Euphorbias we know today appeared in Thailand during the mid-1990s and the range of plants appears to have been spurred by the high prices paid for them at that time. To this day I find this transformation truly amazing. But then the Thais are master plantsmen and master plant breeders and if anyone could create the proverbial silk purse from a sow’s ear, it would be the plant breeders of this country.

Poysean Euphorbias are widely grown throughout Thailand and a visit to this beautiful country will give you many ideas on how to use them. As well as thriving in pots, they do well in raised, free-draining garden beds. The range of cultivars is truly amazing and includes plants with varied growth forms and ‘flower’ colour, sizes and shapes.

Once established, plants grow 600 to 1,500 mm (2 to 5 feet) high by 600 to 1,000 mm (2 to 3 feet) wide. Because of their mixed hybrid origin, some cultivars are slightly more upright in growth and some are more spreading. If you have a position in mind it pays to analyse the growth habit of the plant you plan to purchase. This is obvious from a young age.

Potted Euphorbia auspiciously placed by the front door

Despite their popularity overseas, in Australia you are most likely to see these plants grown to their full potential in the gardens of Asian immigrants. They are widely used at entries, in courtyards and in front garden areas – generally grown in pots. No doubt this is spurred by the belief that these plants have auspicious qualities.

So why haven’t these plants taken off in Australia? I believe it is lack of familiarity and perhaps the fear of the new. To see them at their best, plants have to be large. As small plants, they can look gawky and unattractive. Plants are also slow growing. Large plants are expensive to produce and are easily damaged in transit. I am told by nurseries that tip cuttings are required to grow attractive commercial grade plants. This requires many large plants from which to harvest.

Poysean Euphorbias also do well in the ground in warmer climates

The good news is that the plants are very easy to propagate and established plants benefit from appropriate pruning. If you have a friend with a plant, you might like to suggest you would happily give it a prune to enhance its shape! Some plants throw new growth from the base and is simply a case of removing lanky branches to encourage new branches to replace them. Others send out long branching growths and these can be cut back above a selected joint.

Tip cuttings 100 to 150mm (3 to 6 inches) long root readily. However ensure the cuttings are dried for at least a week in a well ventilated, dry and shady area so that the wounds callous over. Plant cuttings in coarse washed sand or a sandy potting mix and let this mixture dry slightly between waterings.

Euphorbia in a temple garden in Chieng Mai

Plants grow exceptionally well in pots. In Asia plants are often grown in large ceramic pots. They like good drainage and to dry out slightly between waterings. Use equal parts of a quality potting mix combined with sieved ash, fine gravel or coarse washed sand. Water during dry periods as plants look best if they don’t dry out excessively. However if you do go on holiday, don’t worry, Your plant may drop a few leaves or flowers but will bounce back with a bit of attention. Apply a controlled release fertiliser following the manufacturer’s recommendations. Select a fertiliser high in phosphate and lower in nitrogen such as one recommended for flowering plants or tomatoes.

In cooler climates, plants can be brought under cover or into the greenhouse in winter. Plants are frost tender, and of course, coming from tropical or subtropical areas, enjoy wet summers and autumns and slightly drier winters.

Now sit back and enjoy. It can’t get any easier than this – a spectacular flower show for most of the year and practically nothing to do!

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Arno King

About Arno King

Landscape architect, horticulturist, journalist and keen gardener, Arno is a regular contributor to Subtropical Gardening Magazine. Based in Brisbane, Arno grows a wide diversity of unusual plant species and has particular interests in growing edible plants in creative settings and biological and organic gardening. Brisbane, Queensland

11 thoughts on “Poysean euphorbias

  1. Every time you profile a new plant, I think ‘that’s the one I want to try and grow’. Each looks more luscious than the last.

  2. AliCat on said:

    Arno I just love the intensity of colour of this plant. Being from a cold climate I know that I cannot grow it, but it is one that I can certainly drool over.

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Alicat

      perhaps you can grow one in a pot and bring it inside or under shelter obver winter. Many gardeners in cooler climates have great success growing plants this way.

      Arno

  3. Allan on said:

    I was just trying to find out the name of these euphorbias. I have lived overseas and my Vietnamese neighbour had these. They were so easy to grow and flowered great. Wherecan I buy some?

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Allan

      Euphorbia plants are generally available over summer, particularly if you live in Queensland or the Northern Territories. As to names, unfortunately nurseries don’t seem to sell them with names these days. many plants originate in Thailand and have Thai names.

      Bunnings is just about to release Euphorbia ‘Lipstick’. It has flouro pink flowers, is quite compact and the spines are soft. Definitely this is a plant to get if you like these Euphorbias.

      Good luck with your detective work.

      Arno

  4. Paul on said:

    Easily grown by cuttings 🙂
    Just be careful with the caustic white sap – its VERY irritant.
    Great plants for containers and do well in warm climates.
    One of my favourite plants even with all those spines 🙂

  5. Belinda on said:

    Thanks for this great info! We just bought one of these in the Vietnamese market part of Bankstown in Sydney, and were curious about the origin and how to care for it.

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Belinda

      Good luck with your new plant. They are tough, very low maintenance and long lived so will provide you with many years of pleasure.

      Arno

  6. Arno King on said:

    After 6 months of very dry weather and the heat wave we had in Brisbane a couple of weeks ago, many plants in my garden look a little worse for wear. Luckily the hot dry weather was followed by lots of rain (155mm on the Thursday).

    One plant that was untroubled by the dry, the heat or the wet weather was the Poysean Euphorbia. They just keep on growing and flowering.

    Arno

  7. Hi Arno, What a great article! I came across Poysean euphorbias @ TopTropicals in Hawai’i first; they should be superb for the dry-climate garden and cope equally well with the high humidity we have in FNQ during our summer. Do you have any idea where to get them in Australia?
    Thank you for opening my eyes (again) to these beautiful plants. cheers, Florian

  8. Anton on said:

    Love these plant a lot and frequently admire them in Thailand. Unfortunately no they don’t love Thailands heavy monsoonal rains or mine for that matter. In fact they’re grown throughout SEA and don’t like their monsoon rains either. While they are happy to have extreme humidity and sunlight, wet around the roots for any prolonged time will see the plant defoliate and collapse. Of course I could never work out how come they thrived so well in SEA and tried a few myself before giving up entirely as they rotted within a week.
    The secrete is shelter. Grow them under an awning, in doorways, balconies anything that has a roof above it. This is not say grow them in shade but grow them where the rain won’t fall on them and you have a superb pot plant. This is probably the most salient point in growing them at all in the wet tropics. Don’t be fooled by nurseries full of them outdoors in Thailand either, this is the dry season. Like South East Asias ubiquitous and wildly colourful Adeniums they have to be brought under cover for the monsoons.

    Realising this I now have lovely healthy plants that look like anything I choose from roses to azaleas and pretty as a picture.

    Another point I think I should make here to help avoid any disasters is that yes they love tomato food, but its not for the high phosphates as stated here, it’s for the high potassium. The lowest number in tomato food is in fact phosphates the highest potassium as tomatoes don’t thrive on phosphates at all. For me E. millii also don’t like heavy doses of fertiliser but a dilute high potassium fertiliser lowish in nitrogen with negligible phosphates. Like most other flowering succulents. Also don’t over water any season. Terracotta pots work for me as they dry out the fastest after a good watering. Only water again once they do dry out completely or you willl either get rot or lots of green growth and no flowers as the plant will think its growing time or alternatively time to die.

    The reason Poysean euphorbias resemble more than a passing resemblance to Euphorbia millii is because thats exactly what they are, Euphorbia milii, crown of thorns. Poysean simply means in Chinese the eight Saints of Chinese mythology, a name coined for E.millii by Chinese immigrants in Thailand. They call them that we call them crown of thorns.

    Hope that helps a little. Im not the only fool because I saw someone trying to wage war on fungus and rot in Sri Lanka on Euphorbia millii in the middle of the wet monsoon season. It was a small road side nursery. Unfortunately most of his plants had died or were in the process of dying and were encrusted in fungicide the floor was a swamp of fungicide. He had bought three large 25KG sacks of fungicide. I went to his aid and explained he needed to put them in his small polly tunnel for the wet season and he wouldn’t need the toxic fungicides anymore and his plants wouldn’t die. I felt for him and the environment as he had not much else besides dying E.millii which he had obviously invested heavily in expecting good sales. We live and thank heavens also learn from our and everyones else’s mistakes. The dying E. milli plot was a meter away from the polytunnel which had yes you might have guested it three heavily blotched yellow dying roses in it which hate humidity of any kind.

    So if you have have heavy seasonal summer rains keep them covered, they might enjoy it for one week but then it’s tickets.

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