The Euphorbia Journal

Words by
Georgina Reid
Images by
Georgina Reid
| July 22, 2016

It was the end of the day. Tired from elbowing my way through the plant mad crowds of the Collectors Plant Fair in Sydney, I was seeking respite amongst the calm of Gil Teague’s Florilegium book stall. Then I saw it – a stack of hardcover books titled The Euphorbia Journal, volumes 1-10. I was like a bee to a honey pot.

I mean, seriously, ten volumes of a journal focused on a single plant genus, complete with hardcover, glossy paper and high production values? As far as I was concerned it was the perfect combination of wonderful and obscure.

The Euphorbia Journal refers to itself as “A journal dedicated to the collection and dissemination of knowledge, photographs, exploration, and all data related to by the succulent euphorbias.” The first volume was published by Strawberry Press in 1987. The founder, Herman Schwartz, was a medical doctor and (clearly!) a very keen plant man. Ten volumes of the journal were published, one per year for a decade. Each is filled with interviews and stories with titles like Flowering Parts of the Caput-Medusae Group: An Identification Guide, Variations of Euphorbia francoisii, The Succulent Spurges: Landmarks in Early History. Great stuff, but jeez you’ve gotta be keen.

At this point, I imagine it would be useful for me to provide some background information on euphorbias. Sorry non plant-nerd readers if you’ve somehow managed to hang on this long.

Euphorbia is a plant genus found within the family Euphorbiacae. For perspective, there’s around 640 plant families in existence and over 17 000 genera (plural of genus). The Euphorbia Journal focuses just one of those 17 000 genera – Euphorbia.

But of course, they made it even more niche and focused on succulent euphorbias, of which there are around 1000 species. Brilliant.

The easiest way to identify a euphorbia is by its white sap. Break off a leaf, and if milky white sap oozes out, it’s likely to be a euphorbia. The sap, by the way, is poisonous. Wash it off immediately if it gets on your hands as it can irritate skin and eyes. Succulent euphorbias grow primarily in Africa and the Americas, in dry, desert-like conditions. A bunch of them are common garden/feature plants in Australia – like Euphorbia trigona, Euphorbia tirucalli, and Euphorbia millii.

A NOTE ON TAXONOMY: All plants are grouped into families based on their botanical characteristics like flower structure, the way they reproduce, and leaf arrangements. Within a family there are subgroups that are more alike again – these are called genus, and then, an individual plant will have its own species name. For example, Euphorbia tirucalii.

Humans are also grouped in the same way (it’s called binomial nomenclature but lets not get too technical). Our family is Hominidae (same as apes, gorillas, orangutangs, chimpanzees etcetera), our genus Homo, and our species is sapiens. Homo sapiens. Yep?

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I bought Volume 2 of the Euphorbia Journal because buying the whole set would be quite an indulgence for someone with a general interest in the genus only. I’ve learnt quite a lot though, and whilst the content is certainly aimed at the euphorbia enthusiast, it’s accessible and rather interesting, and the diversity of species illustrated is mind-blowing.

THINGS I LEARNT FROM THE EUPHORBIA JOURNAL

  • According to euphorbia collector Allen Kerr of Austin Texas, who has grown over 350 different species, 90% are easy to grow, 7% difficult, and 3% nearly impossible. He reckons the most difficult ones to grow all originate from the Cape Town area of South Africa.
  • Euphorbophiles, like most fanatics, are very quick to point out inaccurate botanical names and poor quality images. Dr Armin Svoboda from Germany, whilst enjoyed the first issue, has noted numerous mistakes and poor quality plant specimens. He hopes the next edition “will not have less photographs.”
  • The name Euphorbia derives from Euphorbus, one of King Juba’s physicians. According to Pliny (AD 23-79), Euphorbus “discovered this plant on Mount Atlas … It’s potency is so great that the juice, obtained by incision with a pole, is gathered from a distance; it is caught in receivers made of kids stomaches placed underneath. Fluid and like milk as it drops down, when it has dried and congealed it has all the features of frankincense. The collectors find their vision improved. It is employed as a treatment for snake bite.” Its thought Pliny was referring here to Euphorbia officinalis.
  • “It takes an innate something which can’t be described – lots of careful attention, watering carefully, seeing the plant often – to make a euphorbia grow,” according to Dave Grigsby of Grigsby Cactus Gardens in California.
  • Potting mix for your euphorbia collection, according to Guy Wrinkle, should be water retentive, have good aeration, be free from pests and diseases, have a suitable pH level for the plant, be able to support the plant, and be economical to make. Thanks Guy.
  • Euphorbia francoisii from Madagascar is weird and beautiful.

What a great thing niche publishing is. This is what got me so excited about The Euphorbia Journal – who in their right mind these days would publish such a gorgeous series of hardcover journals focused on just one plant genus? Madness. Brilliance. I thought Planthunter was niche but The Euphorbia Journal takes it to a whole new level.

You can buy the entire ten volumes of The Euphorbia Journal from Florilegium book store. What a great gift for that euphorbophile friend of yours. Everyone’s got one, right?

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