Firesticks"Firesticks" Pencil Cactus


I get withdrawal sadness when I can't garden. Winter is difficult since the garden makes so few demands. Having the first sunny morning in many days, I was up at first-light & went outside for a couple hours doing unnecessary weeding & knocking fallen leaves off the heads of smaller plants & just looking intensely here & there. Tiny birds followed me all around the gardens as though they thought I had something for them; some of the birds have gotten so used to me they come within a couple feet hanging in shrubs to see what I'm up to, hoping I might stir up some worms.

Mere tinkering or wandering in the garden will get me by, but without a lot to do, I don't get even half the exercise I would in more intensive gardening seasons. The combination of physical & emotional shift between heavy-gardening months & little-gardening months causes my body & emotions to cry out for "fixes" even if it's only a journey to an indoor sunshop to look at houseplants.

The "fixes" fortunately don't get out of hand though, or I'd always be bringing stuff home that was unnecessary. And as far as houseplants go, I definitely do not have the same good luck I have with outdoor plants, which have our naturally temperate weather to do most of the work, so it's hard for me to mess it up. For indoors, with plants' welfare totally in my hands, time & experience has lent me a preference for succulents that are hard to kill.

So I tend not to be too badly spur-of-the-moment-must-have since I like to research anything new beforehand, & only rarely swindle myself by getting something for no good reason except I needed to get something. But one wintry day in 2001, I found I could not resist a houseplant because it was in front of me & inexpensive & interesting-looking as my eyes got big & greedy.

It was that cultivar of the pencil cactus sold as "Firesticks" (Euphorbia tirucalli 'Rosea') — an interesting succulent being sold in winter because of its christmasy coloration. A desert native of South Africa, in winter the Firesticks variety turns pale coral on the top third of the pipes. I bought three of them just assuming it would take the same care as any desert succulent & fortunately that turned out to be true.

While waiting to pay for my little handful of Firesticks, the woman standing behind me in line started chatting:

"Have you had those before?"


"Well, something you should know, if you break one of the pipes, the entire plant will bleed to death, so you have to cauterize it or bandage it up."

"Really? Good lord!"

Well, no, that turned out not to be true, but that woman sure thought so. Nice to have a plant that people have superstitions about!

I didn't know it was poisonous until I looked it up at home; the white sap is quite caustic & dangerous to get in one's eyes & potentially unsafe around pets or children.

I replanted all three small pots into one big pot & it looked hunky-dory in the window sitting between two other heat-loving plants. In the seasons that followed it got quite a bit larger, & did not suffer from my tendency to forget to water the plants in the window.

In the 2001 portrait above, the plant visible on the right is Capsicum annuum 'Black Prince,' a dwarf ornamental pepper that has nearly black leaves & purple flowers that give way to black chiles that age into bright red. I managed to take pretty good care of that one for quite some while, & it kept producing peppers, but eventually I overlooked it too long & killed it. To the left is a deciduous dwarf pomegranate (Punica grantum 'Nana') that has lost most of its leaves for the winter & functions pretty nicely as an instant-bonsai without requiring any bonsai training. I kept it as a houseplant for some while, but eventually put it out in the garden where it now thrives at nature's hands, no longer at risk relying wholly on me.

Obtaining the Firesticks provided just the tiny adventure my gardening-withdrawl symptoms required, increased in pleasure by the anonymous Helpful Hannah sharing her superstition of it's ability to bleed to death. The whole process helped to stave off the jitters for a couple of days, plus it turned out to be just the perfect thing for years to follow, ideal for anyone who is apt to overlook houseplants for long stretches.


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