by Bruce Brethauer
Many years ago, when I was just new to raising cacti and other succulents, Jim Peterson, founding member of the Central Ohio Cactus and Succulent Society commented to me that "If you like cactus, you're going to love the euphorbias". At the time, I wasn't really sure what he meant, but as I learned more about the various families and genera of succulent plants, I did indeed develop a real interest in the the succulent euphorbias. For practically every growth habit of cacti, there is an equivalent to be found in the succulent euphorbias. Oftentimes, books on cacti and other succulents illustrate cacti and their euphorbia look-alikes to illustrate the principal of convergent evolution in which unrelated species acquire a similar appearance as they adapt to similar habitats, climates, and "lifestyles". But the forms and habits of the succulent euphorbias are often much more varied and bizarre than can be found in the cactus family - some of the distinctive traits to be found in the euphorbia family include beautifully variegated stems, unusual forked and branched "spines" curious caudex forming and geophytic species, and a few forms which practically defy description. One of my favorite forms of the euphorbia family are the so-called Medusoids - named for the medusa or gorgon of mythology, these plants have a globose or sub-globose primary stem (the So called "head" of the medusa), which is either ringed or surrounded by thinner, "arms" or branches which are typically covered with scale-like tubercles (the snake "hair" of the medusa). These arms are typically produced in spiraling whorls. The overall appearance of these types may vary from curious to very attractive. In many species, additional heads may be produced at the tips of the "arms", and these can be rooted to propagate additional plants: in some species, Euphorbia flanaganii for example, this may be the primary means by which the plant is propagated commercially. Many species are quite compact, and can comfortably grown in 3 and 4 inch pots, while a number of species (Euphorbia caput-medusae and E. inermis) can grow much larger, with heads growing up to about 10 inches in diameter, and arms growing to a combined diameter of about 3 feet.
There are a number of species which are similar in appearance to this plant, which may in fact be closely related to one another, including E. pugniformis, E. gorgonis, and E. albipollinifera, however, their inflorescences differ substantially enough to distinguish them, these usually differing in the color and shape of the glands on their Cyathium. In these plants, the glands will tend to look like the “petals” of the flower: in some species, these glands are yellow while in others, the glands are green – E albipollinifera is further distinguished by its white pollen – the trait which accounts for its name. On the basis of the cyathium on this plant I would classify it as Euphorbia gorgonis, rather than E. albipollinifera to which it was originally ascribed, but I have retained its original moniker here just in case someone else may be familiar with this plant under the name it was originally sold under.
Over the years, I have grown many different species, and all have proven to be reasonably easy plants to grow - few present any real challenges. All of the plants which I have grown over the years have responded well to my basic guidelines for growing cacti and other succulents, and all should be moved outside during the warmer months to benefit from the warmer temperatures, increased light, and exposure to summer rains. In my experience, these euphorbias grow especially well at temperatures between 85 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. They also typically produce their flowers in response to warm temperatures and long daylength. As with all euphorbias, these plants can be susceptible to infestations of meaylbugs, and scale insects, although for the most part, I have not had very many pest problems with most of the medusoid species. Also, many of the euphorbias should be kept a bit warmer through their winter dormancy - cooler temperatures may make some species a bit susceptible to rotting.
This plant is by far the oldest euphorbia in my collection - I believe that it is nearly 20 years old at this point, and it is still growing well enough, although I suspect that it is now in decline, and I fear that I may not have it for more than a couple more seasons. Much of its surface is covered with a tannish-brown cork and while it continues to produce a good amount of growth and flowers each year, its growth is slowing, and it really does have a world weary look about it. Over the years, I have propagated several dozen plants from the seeds set on its cyathea – The younger plant depicted here may in fact be one of those offspring, and may give a better impression of what this plant may have looked like in its youth. Habitat photographs of related species shows that plants typically grow with their heads nearly flush with the ground’s surface, with a ring of radiating arms which also grow nearly flush with the ground: in cultivation, plants may grow with a more exposed head, and somewhat more ascending “arms”.
While I doubt that it is possible to find this particular plant in the trade anymore, many of the Medusoid euphorbias can still be found through a number of the specialist mail order nurseries, and a few will occasionally find their way into selections of mixed succulents at some of the "Big Box" stores. All of these are interesting plants, and a few are quite attractive, including Euphorbia supressa, E. fortuita, and E. fusca. This plant may not be the most beautiful species of the group, but I have grown quite fond of it over the years: it is one of the few types of euphorbias which remains small throughout its life - it can easily be accommodated on a deep windowsill . Its bizarre shape frequently attracts attention and its easy going disposition and longevity have made it an especially favored plant in my collection. The Medusoid euphorbias may not be for every grower, but I imagine that there are many growers who will also appreciate their distinctive growth habits.