Cactus and succulents

My New Favorite Christmas Plant

Euphorbia milii ‘Fireworks’… or is it ‘Peppermint Candy’? Photo: logees.com

I first saw this gorgeous variegated crown of thorns euphorbia (Euphorbia milii) in Chatuchak Market in Bangkok about 20 years ago and it was love at first sight! I had to have that plant. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the paperwork I would have needed to bring it back home with me, so I had to let that opportunity slip by. 

Then, about 4 years ago, I saw it again in my local garden center: one single variegated crown of thorns in a shipment of small green-leaved varieties in 5 ½ in (14 cm) pots. The shipment had already been picked through, so there might have been others originally, but by the time I got there, only one was left. I immediately bought it and have been growing it ever since.

The Right Name

The name on my plant’s label read Euphorbia milii ‘Fireworks’, but like a lot of plants coming out of Thailand these days, multiple nurseries import it and give it their own cultivar name. Logee’s Greenhouses sells it (or something very similar) under the name ‘Peppermint Candy’, while Glasshouse Works has one called ‘White Lightning’. And others will simply call it ‘Variegata’ or ‘Variegated’. I’ll use the name ‘Fireworks’ here, as that’s the name that came with my plant. And after all, you have to call it something, don’t you? And whatever the name, the plant is a stunner! 

Christmas Color Galore

Variegated crown of thorns, red flowers.
Two plants are better than one! Photo: oregoncactus.blogspot.com

There’s something about this plant that just says “Christmas”. Every time I look at it, whether in December or July, Christmas tunes start playing in my head. 

It’s the striking color combination that does it. The narrow leaves are creamy white with an irregular central daub of medium green. New leaves often have a pinkish tinge. And small, bright red flowers appear here and there among the foliage. (They’re actually not true flowers, but two special bracts collectively called the cyathium that surround the tiny real flowers that are yellow.) It blooms all year long, probably more in summer than at Christmas, but even then, at the darkest days of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, it still has enough flowers to put on a good show.

Even the new spines and top growth of the stems are reddish.

Below the colorful leaves and flowers is a woody gray stem with abundant and nasty spines: the “thorns” of the name crown of thorns. This is not a plant you’ll want to hug! It branches fairly readily and is on the small side for a crown of thorns. My 4-year-old plant is about 18 inches (45 cm) high: about as big as I want it to grow, so I’ll have to do some judicious pruning come spring. 

Growing It

Anyone who has grown crown of thorns euphorbia will tell you how easy they are to take care of. All they really need is good light (full sun is best) and very moderate watering. Wait until the potting mix is thoroughly dry before watering again, but then soak the root ball. In the coolness of winter, you may only need to water once a month or so; in summer, when it is growing most actively and evaporation is greatest, that may well be every week. 

Normal indoor temperatures are just fine, but it will tolerate extreme summer heat and quite a bit of winter cold, although ideally, you’d keep it above 50˚F (10˚C) at all times, because it stops blooming when it starts to get chilly. And it’s also more subject to rot when it’s cool. 

Like most succulents, it doesn’t mind dry air and needs very little fertilizer. A sprinkle or two per year of all-purpose fertilizer (or indeed whatever fertilizer you happen to have on hand) in spring or summer is quite enough.

This is a very slow-growing plant. Enough so that some nurseries have dropped it, claiming it takes too long to reach a saleable size. But there are some things worth waiting for and this is one.

As it grows, you can move to larger and larger pots using cactus soil or any well-drained potting soil. Of course, the pot must have a drainage hole.

It’s a spiny plant with irritating sap, so keep it out of reach of children and pets. 

It rarely suffers from insects, although mealybugs and scale are possible. Rot (beware of moist, cold conditions) is its main enemy. 

In the Tropics

Of course, if you live in the tropics, you can grow it outdoors. Just plant it in well-drained soil and full to nearly full sun and watch it turn into an eye-catching shrub. Of course, no frost is tolerated.

Spreading Christmas Cheer

You’ll have to multiply your ‘Fireworks’ crown of thorns by cuttings. Even if it did produce seeds (unlikely indoors), it wouldn’t come true to type through sexual reproduction.

Mid-spring to mid-summer is the best season to take cuttings, as it roots best from fairly new growth and grows most heartily at that time of year. Plus, it roots best under warm conditions. Cuttings taken in late fall or winter are slow to root and prone to rot.

Wear thick gloves to protect your fingers from the thorns and the somewhat toxic white latex sap. (You might also want to wear safety goggles: the sap is very irritating to the eye.) Carefully cut off a 4- to 6-inch (10- to 15-cm) tip segment with a sharp knife or pruning shears and spritz with cold water to stop the abundant flow of sap. Also remove any flowers it may bear.

Cuttings of crown of thorns on newspaper
You need to let crown of thorns cuttings dry out for a few days before you pot them up. Photo: goodtogrow.wordpress.com

Set the cutting on its side on a cloth, a sheet of newspaper or a paper towel (the dripping sap can damage furniture) and let the wound seal off, which it will do in 2 or 3 days, leaving the cut end looking dry and a bit sunken. 

Now apply rooting hormone to the cut and insert the cutting upright into a small pot of barely moist potting soil. And water every week or so, very lightly, just to keep the mix from drying out completely. Moderate light is best at this time.

Crown of thorn cuttings are slow to root and this one is slower than most. Expect to wait at least 2 months for signs of life. Once you see new leaves appear, it has rooted and you can move it to a sunnier spot and start treating it like an adult plant.

Where to Find It

It clearly shows up in garden centers occasionally, as that’s how I found mine, but finding it that way may require quite a bit of luck.

Lots of American mail order nurseries seem to carry ‘Fireworks’, including Kartuz GreenhousesLogee’s Nurseries (under the name ‘Peppermint Candy’) and Glasshouse Works (under the name ‘White Lightning’), although they probably won’t ship such as cold-sensitive plant near Christmas time. 

Variegated crown of thorns, red flowers.
Here it is in Australia, so it’s definitely made it’s way down under! Photo: succies.com.au

I could find no mail order sources in Canada, Europe or Australia … yet, lots of people from those countries are showing photos of their plant, so obviously it’s out there. So, keep looking! 

This is such a charming plant, I can’t understand why it’s not in every garden center, notably at Christmas time.

I hope you can get your hands on one in time for Christmas … next year!

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. After studies at the University of Toronto and Laval University where he obtained his B.A. in modern languages in 1978, he succeeded in combining his language skills with his passion for gardening in a novel career as a garden writer and lecturer. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He is a regular contributor to and horticultural consultant for Fleurs, Plantes, Jardins garden magazine and has written for many other garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening, Rebecca’s Garden and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 50 other titles in English and French. He can be seen in Quebec on French-language television and was notably a regular collaborator for 7 years on the TV shows Fleurs et Jardins and Salut Bonjour Weekend. He is the President of the Garden Writers Association Foundation and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. An avid proponent of garden tourism, he has lead garden tours throughout Canada and to the gardens of over 30 countries over the last 30 years. He presently resides in Quebec City, Quebec.

1 comment on “My New Favorite Christmas Plant

  1. ‘Christmas’ plants are overrated. This one would be nice at any time of year. Even poinsettias are nice throughout the year, although the tend to look rangy for Christmas (naturally). They bloom better farther south in San Diego County or so.

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