How to Grow and Care for African Milk Tree
The African milk tree, scientifically known as Euphorbia trigona, is a captivating succulent native to Central Africa. This remarkable plant has earned several monikers, including candelabra cactus, cathedral cactus, friendship cactus, and good luck cactus, owing to its cactus-like appearance. However, it’s essential to note that despite the resemblance, The African milk tree is not a cactus but a succulent.
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The African milk tree is special because it looks different from other succulents. It has three-sided stems with big ridges. On these ridges, there are thorns and leaves shaped like tear drops, making it look interesting. The plant stays green all growing season, and new growth is a soft light green. The Rubra or Royal Red type is famous for its bold color that turns bright red as time goes on.
Growth and Size
The African milk tree grows very fast, up to 1 or 2 feet every year, and can be as tall as 9 feet. When grown inside, it is smaller, about half of its outdoor size. Only people in North America who live in dry and warm places, where it does not get colder than 50°F at night (like some parts of Texas, California, Florida, and Arizona), can grow African milk trees outside. These lucky people can have a beautiful plant in their garden that is not common in the US.
An important consideration when caring for the African milk tree is its toxicity to both pets and humans. The sap of this plant can be highly irritating to the skin, eyes, and mouth, capable of causing blisters, severe eye discomfort, and in some cases, even convulsions.
Common Names: African milk tree, African milk bush
Botanical Name: Euphorbia trigona
Plant Type: Succulent
Mature Size: 6-9 ft. tall, 1-2 ft. wide
Sun Exposure: Partial
Soil Type: Loamy, well-drained
Soil pH: Neutral
Bloom Time: Spring, summer
Flower Color: White
Hardiness Zones: 9b-11 (USDA)
Native Areas: Africa
Toxicity: Toxic to humans, toxic to pets
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African Milk Tree Care
African milk tree, while it may resemble a cactus, has specific care requirements that ensure its optimal health and growth.
African milk tree thrives in bright, indirect sunlight. A southern-facing window is ideal for indoor cultivation, as is an outdoor location with partial sun exposure. However, when planting in an area with full sun, ensure that the summers are not excessively hot, as this may necessitate additional watering to counteract the intense sunlight.
The African milk tree is not picky about soil, but it needs good drainage. If your soil is thick clay, you have to change it to drain better and keep the pH between 6.1 and 7.8. Sandy or sandy loam soils, with some pumice or perlite, are great for African milk tree to grow well, especially in dry gardens.
The African milk tree does not need much water. Only water it when it is very dry. Let the soil dry before watering again. This is how it grows in nature. For indoor plants, water once a week.
Temperature and Humidity
The African milk tree likes dry and hot weather. If your summers are very hot, put it in a place with some shade and not too much sun. The African milk tree does not need a lot of moisture, and too much moisture can make it sick or have bugs.
During the spring and summer, which are the plant’s growing seasons, administer a monthly feeding of half-strength diluted water-soluble fertilizer. However, abstain from fertilizing during the off-season to allow the plant to naturally enter a dormant phase.
The African milk tree grows very tall and has weak roots, so you need to cut it often. To keep it looking good, cut carefully with clean, sharp tools. The cut parts will dry up and help the plant stay healthy and strong.
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Propagating African Milk Tree
African milk tree is a succulent that propagates readily from cuttings. Due to its sap’s toxicity, it is imperative to use proper protective gear when handling the plant, such as heavy gloves, and wash your hands immediately if exposed to the milky sap.
Steps to Propagate African Milk Tree from Cuttings:
- Gather a sharp knife or hand pruners, alcohol wipes, a 4-inch container with potting medium, and coarse gravel.
- Sterilize the blades of your knife or scissors with alcohol, and then cut off one of the plant’s “arms” at its base.
- Rinse the cut arm with cold running water until it stops oozing.
- Put the arm in a dry, shady place on a paper towel, not in the sun, for five to seven days. The cut end will dry up. (Note: Some people skip this step and put the cutting in the soil right away. The roots will grow in three weeks this way, but the plant can get root rot.)
- Once the callus has formed, plant the arm in your container with the end sitting about an inch below the soil surface.
- Add a layer of gravel on top of the soil to help stabilize the cutting.
- Position the container in a warm area with ample light, maintaining a temperature between 65 and 75°F but avoiding direct sunlight. Rooting typically occurs within two months.
- When you observe root growth, transplant the plant into a slightly larger, 6-inch pot.
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How to Grow African Milk Tree From Seed
The African milk tree can grow from seed, but this is not a good idea. Seeds are hard to find and take a long time to sprout. So it is better to use cuttings to make more plants, like we explained before.
Potting and Repotting African Milk Tree
The African milk tree needs good drainage and not too much water. It likes a clay pot that can soak up extra water, so don’t use a shiny pot that can hold too much water. Use sandy soil or special soil for succulents, and add some pumice or perlite to help the water drain better.
Repotting should be conducted every one to two years, especially as the plant continues to grow taller. This practice ensures sufficient space for the roots and maintains the plant’s stability. When repotting, take precautions and, if necessary, enlist the help of another person to ensure a smooth and damage-free process.
The African milk tree does not like cold and needs more than 50°F to grow well. So only plant it in the soil if your weather is warm enough. If you have it in a pot, bring it inside when it gets cold. Put it in a room with good air and not much moisture. It likes bright light but not direct sun.
Common Pests & Diseases
The African milk tree is a strong plant that does not get sick or attacked by bugs easily. But you should watch out for mealybugs, which look like white strings on the plant. To get rid of them, mix water and some mild soap, then use a wet cloth to wipe the bugs off. Or you can use a paper towel with alcohol or spray water on the bugs.
Overwatering can lead to fungal issues, such as cork disease, resulting in cork-like patches on the stems. In cases of severe root rot due to overwatering, it may be necessary to dispose of the plant entirely.
One of the most common issues encountered with African milk tree is the yellowing of its leaves. This condition is often caused by overwatering, underwatering, or exposure to cold temperatures. Preventing this problem is simpler than addressing it, so ensure your plant resides in a warm area and that you water it sufficiently to allow the soil to dry between watering sessions, without keeping it consistently dry.
Why is Euphorbia trigona called a “milk tree”?
Euphorbia trigona is dubbed a “milk tree” due to the white, milky sap it exudes when cut or damaged. It’s crucial to handle this plant with care and keep it out of reach of children and pets.
Does African milk tree flower?
While houseplants are less likely to flower, outdoor plants and those in their natural habitat can produce white or yellow flowers during the spring or summer, provided the right conditions are met.
Is African milk tree genuinely a “tree”?
When cultivated outdoors, this large succulent can develop a candelabra-like shape and reach heights of up to 9 feet. Therefore, it is occasionally referred to as a “tree.”
In conclusion, The African milk tree is a beautiful plant that is easy to grow inside or outside. But you have to be careful because it is poisonous and follow the right steps to keep it healthy and happy. If you take good care of this unique succulent, it can be a stunning centerpiece for your plants or garden.