A nearly maintenance-free tropical plant known by a number of names such as milkbush, pencil tree or finger tree, pencil plant (Euphorbia tirucalli) is a succulent shrub that grows quickly, reaching heights of up to 30 feet with a 6-foot spread. This heat-loving native of eastern Africa and India displays pencil-thick branches with miniature leaves on the tips. Pencil plant, which thrives in sand and salty sea air, grows in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 10b through 11.
Place pencil plant in bright light or plant in full sun. As Floridata puts it, pencil plant "needs all the light you can give it."
Water pencil plant only when the soil is completely dry. Outdoors, water pencil plant deeply to a depth of 6 to 8 inches to encourage growth of strong, healthy roots, then let the soil dry before watering again. Water an indoor plant until water trickles through the drainage hole, then let the pot drain thoroughly. Never water moist soil, as the plant is highly drought-tolerant and may develop rot if over-watered.
Feed an outdoor pencil plant a dilute solution of a general-purpose, water-soluble fertilizer once every spring. Apply the fertilizer at a rate of 1 to 2 teaspoons in 1 gallon of water. Indoor plants benefit from the same type of fertilizer applied once or twice per month during spring and summer. Use a dilute mixture of no more than 1/2 teaspoon per gallon of water. Withhold fertilizer during fall and winter.
Trim the plant lightly as needed between spring and midsummer to keep the plant tidy and maintain the desired shape. No formal, routine pruning is required.
Items you will need
- General-purpose, water-soluble fertilizer
- Garden shears
- Plant pencil plant carefully if you have children or pets because the milky sap may cause skin blistering and redness. Additionally, the sap may cause temporarily blindness. Toxicity of the plant when eaten is low; eating the plant, however, may result in nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
- Avoid planting pencil plant near ponds because the plants may be toxic to fish.
- The New Sunset Western Garden Book; Kathleen Norris Brenzel, ed.
- Floridata: Euphorbia Tirucalli
- North Carolina State University Extension: Scientific Name, Euphorbia Tirucalli
- The Gardener's A-Z Guide to Growing Flowers from Seed to Bloom; Eileen Powell
- University of California Cooperative Extension: Using Succulents in Your Garden
- Iowa State University Extension: Horticultural Tips: Growing Succulents Indoors
- The Guardian: Gardens: A Sense of Euphorbia
- Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images