Tag Archives: Euphorbia flanaganii

Introducing Euphorbia flanaganii

Euphorbia flanaganii, the medusa head

At Triffid Ranch shows, one of the big draws, obviously, comes when I introduce passersby to the plants. All that I need to say is “Nearly everything here is carnivorous. Guess which ones aren’t.” Suddenly, it becomes a Gahan Wilson-designed Easter egg hunt, with everyone trying to see which plant didn’t consume flesh in its off time.

Euphorbia flanaganii, commonly known as “Medusa Head,” fools them every time. Between its tentacles and what appears to be multiple blunt-beaked mouths in the center, many of those passersby swear that it moves to follow them. When I have to admit that no, it isn’t actually carnivorous, they’re actually disappointed, because it makes an exceptional carnivore mimic.

E. flanaganii gets its common name from both its general reptilian appearance and the fact that it will grow to the size of a human head if left alone. It’s a member of what are referred to as medusoid euphorbias, a group of succulents native to South Africa. The entire Euphorbia genus is widely spread across the Old World, filling many of the niches filled by cactus in the Americas, and the variety of forms seen in the genus is simply breathtaking. E. flanaganii is one of many arresting oddballs, and it combines both ease in care with just a touch of danger. But I’ll get to that.

Euphorbia flanaganii
The structure of a typical medusa head is separated into the arms and the central caudex. As the plant grows, new arms form near the edges of the caudex, gradually spreading out as the plant grows, and the old arms shrivel up and die. Although a succulent, the medusa head needs much more water than would be acceptable or tolerable from most cactus or even most aloes, and it warns of a lack of water by gradually curling up its arms toward the center. It thrives under direct sun, and needs at least six hours of direct sun per day for decent health and growth. Best of all, once it’s situated and happy, it demonstrates its contentment with life by producing a ring of chartreuse blooms, each about the size of a ball bearing, around the caudex. The flowers don’t look like much under visible light, but they absolutely shine under ultraviolet lights.

Now, I mentioned “a touch of danger,” and that danger is why E. flanaganii shouldn’t be kept within easy reach of children or pets. The arms are tough and flexible, but if broken, they exude large amounts of latex sap. Said sap is about as toxic as that of other euphorbias: do NOT let it get in your eyes, and I highly recommend washing hands or other skin exposed to medusa head sap before getting said skin anywhere near your mouth. While none of the available literature mentions it, I’ve noted that the sap also has a phototoxic effect if it’s not washed off immediately. I had no reaction on my hand after getting some sap on my hand until I had no choice but to get out into the sun about an hour later. The resultant burn blister on the affected area taught me to wash my hands thoroughly afterwards.

On brighter subjects, E. flanaganii makes an exceptional container plant, and it can also be put into gardens so long as it’s protected from freezes. Even then, it’s remarkably tough. I had one head-sized flanaganii that I feared had died from exposure to the week-long deep freeze in Dallas in February 2011, and it didn’t make it. However, enough of the arms survived that they grew into new plants.

That’s the other bit of joy with working with E. flanaganii. Once it reaches a certain size, a mother plant will produce pups on the ends of older arms. The growth starts as a swelling at the end of an arm, and rapidly grows its own caudex and arms. After a time, if they don’t root on their own, the arm shrivels and allows the pup to roll away, where it rapidly grows if given access to soil and water. If you’re not careful, you can end up with a whole greenhouse full of them.

While they give no indication of ever becoming an invasive plant, medusa heads seem otherwise perfectly suited for North Texas conditions so long as they get watered regularly during the worst parts of summer. They don’t sunburn easily. They have no insect pests in the US, at least so far as I’ve noted, and even stink bugs stay away from them. They require good drainage, but they’re not fussy about soil conditions otherwise, and they grow well over a wide range of pH levels. They don’t seem to be susceptible to any parasites or diseases seen among other succulents, and they require only the occasional dash of fertilizer. Oh, and when mulched with Star Wars action figure parts, particularly Boba Fett and stormtrooper figures, people tend to go nuts over them.

Tiffany at ConDFW

— Many thanks to South African horror writer Nerine Dorman for turning me onto the joys of the entire Euphorbia clan. She and her husband have been raising South African succulents for years, and she’s forgotten more about the euphorbias than I’ll ever learn.

The first Triffid Ranch show of 2012: ConDFW

In previous years, I’ve avoided attempting plant shows before April with good reason. In 2010 and 2011, for instance, we had such foul weather through February and March that I wasn’t worried about the plants freezing on their way to the event. Instead, I was more worried about my frozen corpse, still seat-belted into the van, being found in a drainage ditch halfway there. Last year, we had a solid week of sub-freezing weather in February, which may not sound like much to the denizens of higher latitudes. Out here, though, that’s begging for arriving at a show with a batch of sundews indistinguishable from a batch of frozen spinach.

However, my friend Amie Spengler nuhdzed and nudged at previous shows about ConDFW, a big literary science fiction convention that runs in Dallas in the middle of February, so the Czarina and I decided to take a chance this year. I still had sundews and bladderworts potted up in containers and ready to go from last November’s disastrous Friends of Fair Park show, and we figured “What could it hurt?” The weather coincided with our plans: lots of rain on Saturday, but otherwise exceptional weather both setting up and breaking down on Friday and Sunday. And who knew that carnivorous plants would be so popular among the Texas A&M student volunteers helping out here while preparing for Aggiecon?

Brad at ConDFW

Some folks came by just out of curiosity, or because they’d seen the Triffid Ranch booth at previous shows. Brad, though, came out specifically because he wanted carnivores. He left with a spoonleaf sundew (Drosera spatulata) and a Cape sundew (Drosera capensis) to go with the big grin on his face.

Beth at ConDFW

Beth is a very old friend, with my having first met her back during my science fiction writing days. She had a craving for green in February, too, as can be told.

ConDFW

Another happy sundew adopter.

Tiffany at ConDFW

And then there’s Tiffany from local gaming company Roll2Play. Tiffany’s main hobby at these shows is to gang up with the Czarina and leave me crying in shame and humiliation as they demonstrate that it is possible to kill at 30 paces with a sharp twist of the tongue. Thankfully for my fragile self-esteem, she took a small break from wielding her wit cannon, took pity on my runny nose and puffy eyes (it was from the flu, honest) and snatched up a medusa head (Euphorbia flanaganii) before anybody else got to see it.

Medusa Head at ConDFW

A closer look at that medusa head. It wasn’t just that Tiffany loved the pot. She particularly loved the detritus within it, and threatened to kneecap anyone who messed with it. Time for me to hunt down a few more pots like this, I think.

And now it’s time to get ready for the next show of the season: All-Con 2012 in March. I’m even thinking of joining the costuming festivities after the main dealer’s room hours, with the obvious head explodey that goes with it. I can’t tell if 2012 is going to be a good year for shows, but if it isn’t, it won’t be from a lack of trying.