Is The Such A Thing As A Euphorbia Cactus?

By Paul Smart •  Updated: 11/09/21 •  5 min read

Is The Such A Thing As A Euphorbia Cactus? The Euphorbia plant family is one of the largest groups of flowering plants with over 2000 different species. Some of these species are quite similar-looking plants to Cactus plants and originate in similar regions in some cases. But are they the same thing? And is there such a thing as a Euphorbia Cactus?

Euphorbias are a separate and distinct group of plants from the Cactus family that is not closely related despite the similarities in appearance. Due to their common features, there are some varieties that have common names that include cactus such as the African Milk Tree Cactus and the Candle Cactus that often create confusion for many people. In short, there is no such thing as a Euphorbia Cactus just similar-looking plants.

The common feature of all Euphorbias is that they contain a milky white sap that is poisonous and can act as an irritant on skin and eyes. It is believed that the Euphorbia evolved this toxic sap as a method of deterring animals from eating the plant.

To avoid an adverse reaction it is advisable to wear gloves and a long sleeve shirt when taking cuttings or pruning to avoid any chance of the saps getting on your skin.

The other feature that also causes confusion is that the Euphorbia also are thorny like a cactus. The spiky section of a cactus is produced from a structure known as areoles which are bumpy structures on the surface of the stem. These spikes are modified leaves that the cactus produces whereas the spiky sections of the euphoria are actually just thorns.

Varieties Of Euphorbia That Are Commonly Confused With Cactus

To illustrate the extent of the similarities I have included a few different varieties of Euphorbia that are commonly mistaken for Cactus plants. This is far from an exhaustive list but it will certainly give you a good idea about some of the plants in this family.

African Milk Tree Cactus

African Milk Tree Cactus is a moderately sized plant that can reach 7 to 9 ft tall when grown outside. It is a relatively slow-growing plant that produces upright green columns that resemble a cactus.

Euphorbia echinus

This spiny Euphorbia is a plant that could easily be mistaken for a cactus. It produces green branches that are up to 4 ft tall and has thorns along the ridges. Over time this plant will typically spread to create a clump that is 3 ft wide and will produce red flowers.

Milk Barrel Cactus (Euphorbia cereiformis)

“Milk Barrel Cactus” is a plant with green columns that have up to 15 ribs. Spikes cover the edges of the ribs.

Candelabra Spurge

Candelabra Spurge is an evergreen succulent with upright branches that forms a shape similar to a candelabra. The color of the stems plant can vary from yellow to a blue-green color. It is a relatively fast-growing plant that can reach heights of 15 to 20 ft (4 to 6m). Like most Euphorbias, it is generally resistant to attack from animals.

Canary Island Spurge

The Canary Island Spurge is a moderately sized succulent that produces upright branches that are typical 2 to 4 inches wide and reach a height of 2 to 8 ft (1.2 to 2.4 m) tall. It is a relatively rapid-growing plant that can spread to almost 8 ft (2 m) wide within a couple of years.

Euphorbia Polygona ‘Snowflake’

Euphorbia Polygona ‘Snowflake’ is a short plant that reaches a height of 1 to 2 ft (30 to 60cm) and produces cylindrical white columns with purple flowers. The plant produces large numbers of pups which makes it extremely easy to propagate.

Are All Euphorbias Similar In Appearance To Cactus Plants

The Euphorbia family is a very diverse group of plants that has a range of species that do not resemble cactus at all. A couple of examples of this include plants like the poinsettia which is often sold as a Christmas decoration in many countries.

Another really popular cottage garden plant is Wood Spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides) which is used for its pretty yellow flowers. There is also a red leafed form that is available. The plant typically reaches 1 to 2ft tall.

Which Is Better To Grow Cactus Or Euphorbias That Look Like A Cactus?

If you want to put a cactus-like plant in your garden and you are not too fussed about the specific species, it then becomes a question of which is better to put in, a Cactus or Euphorbia. In terms of general care Cactus and Euphorbia are both fairly low maintenance plants that generally thrive upon neglect provided that the soil conditions are suitable.

As both plants are succulents they need to be in extremely well-drained soil that is relatively dry. As a general rule, it is a good idea to put the plant in the worst soil in your garden.

The key disadvantage of the Euphorbia family is that they are toxic which means that you need to be really careful whenever you need to do plant maintenance to avoid coming into contact with the sap from the plant. Additionally, if you have young children or pets additional precautions need to be taken to ensure that they are kept away from the plant after the plant has been trimmed.

For this reason, I would avoid using Euphorbia if you can get a similar cactus plant, however, it is important to note that the plants are generally not a problem if they are not cut or the branches are not broken. So it is not necessary to steer away from the plant completely, simply exercise some caution and take precautionary measures such as avoid planting euphorbias near on pathway or through fair to reduce the chances of exposure to the sap.

Paul Smart