Plant This: Noteworthy pencil tree

Euphorbia tirucallii ‘Sticks on Fire’

A couple I’m friends with gave me this red pencil tree for my birthday. The husband explained, “We thought the pencil tree was appropriate since it is from Africa and there is a cool Texas version of the plant that grows around Big Bend too—candelilla (another kind of euphorbia).”

Aside from the thoughtfulness that went into the gift (they know I like Texas plants, and they remembered that I journeyed to Africa last summer), I really like the red pencil tree’s unique shape and the beautiful coloring that gives it the name ‘Sticks on Fire.’ Native to East Africa, it lacks the chlorophyll of its parent plant. Online sources tell me to handle it with care, as its milky sap can burn the skin. Hardy to only 32 degrees, it’ll have to come inside during our occasional freezes, but that’s OK. For now it graces the porch, its green, chartreuse, yellow, and orange stems adding fall color.

An overhead view of the Euphorbia

Note: My Plant This posts are written primarily for gardeners in central Texas. The plants I recommend are ones I’ve grown myself and have direct experience with. I wish I could provide more information about how these plants might perform in other parts of the country, but gardening knowledge is local. Consider checking your local online gardening forums to see if a particular plant might work in your region.

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

7 Responses

  1. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    What a beautiful pencil tree it certainly is noteworthy. I have seen these before but not so large.

    In the ground, in a frost-free climate, it can grow to 4 to 8 feet, I read. —Pam

  2. Kim says:

    How lovely! I have seen these at the local garden centers, but only green. I didn’t realize that they could turn such a pretty fall color. Guess theirs stay too warm?

    This is a cultivar of the standard green pencil tree. —Pam

  3. Bonnie says:

    Is this the same as pencil cactus? We inherited one with our house but after reading about the sap and the affect it can have on your skin and eyes if it got on you, I decided it was not child appropriate and had to send it to the dump. I know, sad…

    It must be. Too bad yours had to go to the dump, but it doesn’t sound like a safe plant to have around little children, so I understand. —Pam

  4. Aiyana says:

    These are nice–as long as they stay in pots! I had one that outgrew three pots, so I put it in my garden. What a mistake! After two years, the plant was seven feet tall and five feet wide. It froze during our freak freeze last year, and just as well. The landscapers wouldn’t prune it because of the poisonous sap, so the freeze took care of that problem. After it dried out, they hauled it away for an extra charge. No more pencil trees for me!

    I will be sure to keep mine in a pot then. That’s really the only option anyway in our climate, which does get below 32 degrees now and then. Thanks for commenting, Aiyana. —Pam

  5. germi says:

    I love love love Euphorbia ‘Stix on Fire’! I have it in several pots in my garden, and I’ve planted it in ground in client’s gardens – but it does have to be cut … not only to control its size, but to keep it “On Fire”. If you don’t cut it, the older growth mellows to a pale coral … the exquisite variety of colors belongs to the new growth. This took me a while to figure out … and yes, people are very frightened of the milky sap. However, I’ve been told by reliable sources that this sap will only adversely affect people with latex allergies – most others won’t even get itchy.

    Great information, Germi. How should it be trimmed, and how often, to keep it “on fire”? —Pam

  6. Julia Hillier says:

    We have an enormous pencil tree, apx 15 ft tall. It looks more like a huge bush. I don’t know what to do with it.
    I haven’t noticed that it blooms, do some varieties just stay green year round? Although it is interesting it looks a bit like a big pile of short green sticks. I’d like to know how to shape it and how to prune it. I’m thinking of putting it on Craigs list for anyone willing to dig it up. Any ideas, help?

    You must be in California, Julia? Pencil trees are frost-tender in Austin and can only be grown in pots, which must be protected in winter. Therefore, they just don’t get that big, and I’ve never had to prune mine. I suggest you visit The Germinatrix, an L.A. blogger and talented designer who will undoubtedly know all about pruning this euphorbia. The only advice I can give you is to cover your skin and protect your eyes if you do prune your pencil tree. The white sap can be a severe skin irritant and has been said to cause vision loss. —Pam

  7. John Coetzee says:

    My wife, Lene, discovered Sticks on Fire in a garden in Pretoria, South Africa, where we live, and we bought one in a pot at one of our local nurseries. It certainly looks a very interesting plant and I’ve put it in the garden. We do get a bit of frost in our short winters, so we’ll see how it turns out. It’s good to know that some people in the US also have this plant, and we enjoyed reading your comments on it. We only hope it won’t grow us out of house and home!