If Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii suddenly disappeared from our plant palettes, imagine the hole it would leave!
What else would we ever find to flower at this time of year, so joyously, and so warmly, so perfectly providing the background and colour contrast to the other jewel-like joys of this season, with so little fuss, with absolutely no seasonal ‘downtime’, and with such generosity as to ensure plenty of offspring for other locations?
Or to think of it another way, if you were asked to design a perfect addition to the garden, that would peak in late winter and throughout spring, and you came up with the specs for Euphorbia wulfenii (which is what it’s mostly, if inaccurately known as), I’d say that you were asking too much – way too much – from one plant.
But here it is. True, it has its flaws. It can be too generous in self-sowing, and its sap is an irritant to most gardener’s skin, and a blinding, hospital-visit-necessitating irritant to the eyes. Long sleeves when working with it, and safety glasses when pruning it, will reduce those risks to near zero.
Everything else about it is overwhelmingly positive.
Dead-heading/pruning isn’t fun, but for once (in gardening) it follows outrageously simple guidelines. Just remove – right to the ground – all stems that have flowered. Nothing else to it.
It’s also one of the easiest of all plants of its size to get rid of. Slide a spade into the ground beneath it in a couple of spots near its base, and you’ll lift it out, with ease, and with no soil attached.
For that little effort you get a stunning dome of neat, blue-grey foliage throughout summer, autumn and winter, towards the end of which most of the stems will start to stretch and arch like a cobra before a snake charmer. Then, in straightening, the stem is transformed into a torch of acid lime-green flame, raising the temperature of all the surrounding planting for months on end. Most gardeners dead-head them as soon as they start to brown, but in dry climates in which the dead bracts can take on a sear, straw quality, there may be times and places when you want to hang onto them. Either way, by then, the shrub will have entirely renewed itself with new shoots from the base, ready for next winter.
It is, quite frankly, the near perfect plant. Don’t make the mistake of taking it for granted.