When I first smelt the aroma of toasted coconut in the laneway next to my house I couldn’t work out where it was coming from but using a process of elimination I realised that it must be coming from the Snowflake bush, Euphorbia leucocephala. It’s one of those fragrances that you can’t really smell when you sniff the flower but it tantalisingly floats in the air nearby.
Euphorbias are generally known for their showy “flowers” or unusual foliage rather than the scent they produce, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that the tropical fragrance was indeed coming from the Euphorbia. The Snowflake bush (not to be confused with the Snowflake bulb) is so much more delicate and refined than its close relative the Poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima. They are similar in that the true flowers are small and insignificant and it is the bracts surrounding the flowers that look so eye catching.
As indicated by the common name, the bracts of the Snowflake are white to cream and they are arranged around one flower or groups of 3 or 5 flowers. The bracts are of unequal length and are clustered on one side of the flower which creates a beautiful, lacy effect and gives rise to another of its many common names – White laced Euphorbia.
Passers-by often comment on how beautiful the Snowflake bush is when it is smothered with blossom which persists for at least 2 months during autumn and into winter.
My plant is pruned so that cyclists can ride past without damaging the plant (or themselves) so it is nearly 3m tall. It is another of those plants that I didn’t have room for in the garden so I plonked it in the laneway to fend for itself. It’s wedged between bulky house footings and the footpath in unimproved soil. Actually calling it unimproved soil is being complimentary – in fact it is a mixture of sand, rubble and old road base but I wanted to maintain the character of a laneway which is created by the really tough plants that survive in the adverse conditions of laneways.
I did end up making some concessions though, so the Snowflake is sparingly watered twice per week in summer. Being on the leeward side of the house it doesn’t receive much rain in winter, although the roots have probably travelled far enough to get the moisture they need. As it is planted against the east facing wall it receives plenty of warmth but is protected from the hot, drying afternoon sun in summer.
It took a number of years for the Snowflake to flower prolifically and this was probably due to two things – the first one being that, like their cousins the Poinsettias, the Snowflake flowering is triggered by the reduced number of hours of light that the plant receives. This one is planted directly opposite a street light but fortunately over the years a very dense street tree grew up, completely blocking out the light so the bush is now in darkness for about 12hrs per day from mid-autumn until early spring.
The second factor that helped with the flowering was that 3 or 4 years ago I started drenching it with diluted worm juice a couple of times a year. Prior to that it only received an annual dressing of slow release fertiliser. (I did say I made a few concessions).
Euphorbia leucocephala is a native of tropical Central America so it won’t tolerate frosts and is therefore best grown in coastal areas in the Perth region. My specimen is fully deciduous for a short period and that’s when I give it a light prune to shape it. Images I’ve seen of Snowflakes growing in tropical gardens indicate that they are normally a maximum of 2 m tall and are usually wider than they are tall but obviously that isn’t practical in the laneway.
The milky sap is reported to be a skin irritant but as I prune when the plant is dormant there is very little sap to be seen. None of the many pests (3 or 4 species snails, slugs, caterpillars and weevils) that frequent the laneway has an appetite for the Snowflake bush and I suspect that is due to the irritating sap.
Despite its delicate looks the Snowflake Bush has proved that it is a survivor in tough conditions with minimal maintenance but any additional care is well rewarded with a more spectacular display.