Euphorbia tirucalli

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General habit: A large unarmed shrub or small tree up to 5 m tall. Branchlets are slender, smooth and cylindrical. Small leaves can be observed appearing on young green branches. The tree is at Muguga, 25 km northwest of Nairobi, Kenya.
© Phanuel O. Oballa
Windbreak: A windbreak of E. tirucalli in a farm at Kibos near Kisumu, Kenya. The row of trees is about 6 m high.
© Phanuel O. Oballa
Trimmed live hedge: A trimmed dense live hedge of E. tirucalli near Kariandusi on the Nairobi - Nakuru road, Kenya. The acacia thorns on the hedge are added to further deter penetration by intruders.
© Phanuel O. Oballa

© J.S. Peterson @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

Local names:
Amharic (kinchib), Arabic (injil), English (finger euphorbia,Indian spurge tree,milk bush,pencil tree,rubber euphorbia), Filipino (bali bali), French (tirucalli,euphorbe effile euphorbe,garde maison,arbre de Saint Sebastien), Gujarati (thor dandalio), Hi

Euphorbia tirucalli is an unarmed shrub or small tree 4-12 (-15) m high with brittle succulent branchlets 7 mm thick often produced in whorls, green and longitudinally finely striated, with white to yellowish latex. 

Leaves few, fleshy, linear-lanceolate, to 15 x 2 mm, present only at the tips of young branchlets and very quickly deciduous; extreme tips of young leafy branchlets sparsely tomentose, with curled brown hairs, soon glabrescent; glandular stipules minute, dark brown. 

Cymes 2-6 congested at the apices of the branchlets, forking 2-4 times, with rays less than 1 mm long producing a dense cluster of cyathia developing only male flowers, or occasionally a few female flowers also present, or cyathia fewer and only female flowers developing, the whole cyme may be glabrous or tomentose, with curled brown hairs, especially the involucres and lobes; bracts rounded, 2 x 15 mm sharply keeled, usually glabrous except on the margin.

False flowers (cyathia) subsessile, 3 x 4 mm, with cup-shaped involucres; glands 5, subglobose to transversely elliptic, 0.5 mm long. Male involucres: bracteoles linear with plumose apices; stamens 4.5 mm long; an aborted female flower is occasionally present. Female involucres: bracteoles present and occasionally a few male flowers; perianth distinctly 3-lobed below the tomentose ovary, with lobes 0.5 mm long; styles 2 mm long, joined at the base, with thickened deeply bifid recurved apices. 

Fruit a glabrescent capsule, exserted on a tomentose pedicel to 1 cm long, subglobose, 8 x 8.5 mm. 

Seeds ovoid, 3.5 x 2.8 mm, smooth, buff speckled with brown and with a dark brown ventral line; caruncle 1 mm across.

The generic name commemorates Euphorbos the Numidian (N.E. Algeria) physician of King Juba of Mauretania c.54 B.C. The name tirucalli is a native name from Malabar in India.


It is normally found in dry bushland thickets and naturalizes easily in brushwood, open woodland and grassland up to 2 000 m.

Native range
Angola, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritius, Rwanda, Senegal, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zanzibar

Tree management

It coppices well at 20-30 cm height. Under semi arid conditions the regrowth of the finger euphorbia is excellent. A density of 10 000-20 000 plants is normal when grown as a fuel crop. When planted at a spacing of 1m x 1m it produced 120 t/ha fresh material and 14 t/ha dry matter after 1 year, yielding 40-88 kg of crude oil, 135-213 kg of sugar and 1.8 t of bagasse.

Germination is epigeous in E. tirucalli.

It is normally found in dry bushland thickets and naturalizes easily in brushwood, open woodland and grassland up to 2 000 m.

Branch cuttings grow with ease, rooting quickly to form dense bushes which if left soon become naturalized and forms a small tree. Cuttings are obtained from older branches; left to dry for a day before planting.

Poison:   The latex is highly poisonous, causing severe injury to the eye, irritation and vesication from contact, emesis and purgation from ingestion. It is also piscicidal and insecticidal. E. tirucalli showed strong activity against Colletotrichum capsici, Fusarium pallidoroseum, Botryodiplodia theobromae, Alternaria alternata, Penicillium citrinum, Phomopsis caricae-papayae and Aspergillus niger in paper disc diffusion sensitivity tests. The extracts of E. tirucalli contain a number of esters of the tetracyclic diterpenoid phorbol, many of which have been shown to act as tumour promoters (cocarcinogens). Their co-carcinogenic effect on lymphoblastoid cells poses a real threat in Africa where drinking water is drawn around the plants. Latex of E. tirucalli was highly toxic to the parasitic nematodes. Hoplolaimus indicus, Helicotylenchus indicus and Tylenchus filiformis in vitro, toxicity increased with an increase in the concentration of latex and exposure period.

E. tirucalli is very drought resistant and efficient in photosynthesis because of its unique photosynthetic physiology combining both the Crassulacean acid metabolism and the C3 pathways. It can be used in land reclamation programmes. In Zimbabwe plantations of E. tirucalli have succeeded in some instances at <5 000 p.p.m. in arsenic mine spoil mounds.

Erosion control:  Protects bare soil in dry areas from wind and water erosion. E. tirucalli fences can act as erosion breaks.

Yields charcoal suitable for use in gunpowder. Its use as a source of hydrocarbon has been investigated by a number of authors, the latex hydrocarbon is largely a C30 triterpenoid which on cracking yields high octane gasoline. It is estimated that 1-2 t of crude oil can be obtained per ha per year from E. tirucalli. The gross energy value of E. tirucalli biomass is 17 600 kJ/kg. The biomass can be converted into gas, liquid fuels and solid fuels such as pellets, briquettes and charcoal.

Timber:  The wood is white, close grained and fairly hard. It is used for toys, rafters and veneers.

Medicine:  The young branches can be roasted then chewed for sore throat. The boiled root juice acts as an emetic in cases of snake bite, and also for sterility in women. Caution should be observed in making medicinal preparations of this plant due to its high toxicity. Poultices from the stem are applied to heal broken bones. In Peninsular Malaysia, a poultice of the roots or stems has been applied to ulceration of the nose, haemarrhoids and swellings. Root scrapings, mixed with coconut oil, are given to cure stomach-ache. 

Gum or resin:  The sap has strong fixative power and is used on the east African coast for fastening knife-blades to wood handles and spear-heads to shafts.

Ornamental:  Widely planted for ornamental purposes.

E. tirucalli is an extensively used hedge plant in rural areas of East Africa.

Intercropping:  The finger euphorbia is an ideal species for agroforestry offering little shade and having many other uses.

Latex or rubber:  The latex is an emulsion of about 30% (principally euphol) terpenes in water. During the Second World War the latex was used in South Africa in the development of a rubber substitute, but this proved to be unstable and unprofitable due t

Other services:  The tree has a number of cultural implications in many African communities.