Plants - Perennials

Sensational spurges

Versatile spurges add a colourful wallop to the garden

Charming, in a bizarre sort of way, is the donkey-tail spurge, which forms a sprawling octopus of thick stems. This species seeds around a bit and pops up in unexpected places, especially in gravelled walkways. Of all the species, this one can cause the most extreme skin reactions, which may intensify when exposed to the sun.

Where winters are very cold, gardeners can only dream about growing the big and bushy evergreen spurge. In West Coast gardens, these have become deservedly popular, and there are a dozen or so selections available. Big, hand-sized heads of bracts appear in late winter and last into early summer. The substantial clumps are often placed as specimens near entranceways or where their winter colour can be appreciated. Caring for this species is simple: in early summer, remove any stems that have finished blooming, cutting them right down to their bases.

The wood spurge has two forms: purple wood spurge, which produces a mound of purple-red evergreen leaves and self-seeds a little; and leatherleaf spurge, or Mrs. Robb's bonnet, which is an extremely handsome groundcover but spreads aggressively by underground runners. It's best used on challenging sites, such as in dry shade where nothing much seems to grow. Martin's spurge is similar-looking but forms a well-behaved clump, making it a better choice where space is limited.

One spreading spurge to avoid at all costs is the Cypress, or graveyard, spurge. It can form a huge patch in what seems like 10 minutes, a habit that's compelled some provinces to place this species on their noxious weed lists. Despite these warnings, selections such as 'Fens Ruby' continue to be sold in nurseries; better to avoid these than to spend years trying to eradicate them.

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