Repotting a cactus is something I have been avoiding for a long time…..many, many years actually. All of them are bursting out of their containers, but the thought of handling them has triggered an automatic aversion. The potting soil and new pots have been sitting on the dining room floor for months. I look at them and then redirect my interests elsewhere whenever the thought of doing this crosses my mind.
However, I have been home for a week “recuperating” from hand surgery. Taking advantage of this not-quite vacation, I made a to-do list, which included cactus relocation. I finally did it, and I did it pretty much with one hand, which was quite the feat, if I must say so. A friend suggested I wrap the cacti in newspaper to avoid getting stabbed and minimize breakage, so that is what I did. What I discovered was that despite copious amounts of newspaper and standard garden glove(s), the spikes on one of them pierced right through and stuck me anyway. The other discovery is that one of the cacti is not really a cactus at all.
This one particular cactus-that-isn’t-a-cactus had grown pretty tall and was ready to topple out of its too small base of a pot. With a candelabra shape and spines along its ridges, I have always referred to it as a “Candelabra Cactus”. The Candelabra has never flowered in all the years I have had it, but then, most of my cacti don’t, although some years blooms will occur; a pleasant surprise. There is no recollection as to how this one was acquired. Carefully wrapping it in newspaper, it lifted out of the pot easily and nothing broke. But after it was settled into its new pot, the spines began to literally weep with what appeared to be white glue. Little dots of white were coming out from all different points and began to run copiously down it’s sides. Clearly it was not happy being disturbed.
Seeing this set off an instant trigger. The only time I had ever seen that happen was while trying to eradicate Cypress Spurge (Euphorbia cyparissias), also known as “graveyard weed”, a noxious weed which had invaded a garden of mine a few homes ago with such a vengeance that I never was able to totally remove it. The spurge had suddenly bloomed one year, with a lovely show of yellow flowers and sweet aroma. Leaving it to see what it would do, in no time it took over every little nook of the garden, blooming through the rock wall, up the hill into the lawn, throughout the perennial beds – this despite supposedly preferring dry, gravelly soil. Pulling out the spurge caused a toxic, milky white substance to ooze out and cause a rash and blisters every where it touched skin, much like poison ivy. Methodically spraying the leaves with weed-killer (which I hate to use – it was a desperate measure) decreased its spread, but I was never able to totally eliminate it. This was not a fun time. One of the few perks of moving from that place was leaving the Cypress Spurge behind.
Cautious that the mere act of disturbing the cactus caused it to shed those white tears, I didn’t touch it but I did do an internet search. And sure enough…..the cactus is an imposter – the thing is a type of Euphorbia. This particular one originates in Africa – Zimbabwe to be exact – but they come from other places too, including India. There are different types and shapes of Euphorbia. According to some of the photos, mine appears to be a Euphorbia candelabrum. The white stuff is latex, poisonous, and can do some serious damage, especially if you are sensitive to it. Here are some of the things I found that these nasty Euphorbias can do to you:
This plant is considered poisonous and
has been used for homicidal purposes. In central Africa the latex is used as a
purgative and as a caustic on skin lesions. On the other hand neither the latex
nor the watery extract from it is toxic to guinea pigs when given by mouth.
A wax called Candelila is made from this
Euphorbia. It is used in leather polishes and for waterproofing certain
products. Mixed with rubber it is used for insulation, dental mouldings and is
also used in sealing wax, metal lacquers, paint removers and lithographic
colors. Mixed in paraffin it is used to make candles. It is not surprising
therefore that the latex can cause skin problems.
The latex has been used as an application to help cancerous sores, cracked skin
on the feet and various other skin disorders. However, the latex can be very
dangerous depending on the dose given.
This is a Euphorbia sought after by
many collectors. When you find one, be sure to remember if you get any amount of
latex on your hands and then rub your eyes, your eyes could become inflamed. The
inflammation can last several days.
The latex is so irritant that a slight smear on the
face or tender skin produces a blister within a short period. The latex is
irritant to the eye and may result in blindness. If a person stands close to a
bleeding plant, inhalation of the air from the neighborhood produces a burning
sensation in the throat. Some Africans use the latex to poison fish. Apparently
the fish rise, paralyzed but still breathing. They can then easily be caught and
eaten with impunity.
The latex may be highly acrid and
irritating. Milking cows fed on the plant during drought were unable to give
birth to normal calves due to deformities.”
The latex is very poisonous. It has been used
to make poison arrows.
And this is nothing. As I read on, there were horror stories. – burns, blindness, death. And did you see above? The sap from the Euphorbia candelabrum has been used to make poison arrows! Poison Arrows!!!!
The S.O. jokingly asked if I had any enemies, suggesting I could leave the lovely Euphorbia on their doorstep. (OK…before I laughed, I paused for just the most fleeting of moments to contemplate on that scenario).
And to imagine, this plant has had a place in my home for years. I greet it every morning and have looked on it rather fondly, up until now. Obviously it demands some respect. Knowing its potential, and having had dealings with its unpleasant cousin in the past, my relationship with this imposter cactus has immediately shifted.
Euphorbia is outside on the porch at the moment, looking rather spiffy in its new pot. The poison it has wept has almost dried. Regretfully, unless someone is interested in taking this plant home, tomorrow it is going to be gently wrapped in newspaper – this done with gloves – and going straight into the garbage.