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The Euphorbia Story

Euphorbia milii, commonly called the Crown of Thorns, is an old pot and house plant. In the tropics & subtropics it has been long used as a landscape plant, valued for its toughness and possibly even more for being inedible to cattle!


An unidentified E. milii clone forms an impressive focal plant on a traffic island in Mumbai.

Originating in Madagascar, several different clones of this orange red flowering succulent are common plants in tropical and subtropical areas- as a child I helped my mother to grow two large specimens with thick trunks in her balcony collection- they thrived for years, kept in check with bi-annual pruning- I remember the thorns and milky sap during this operation quite vividly.


Basic Crown of Thorns hybrids are commonly used as pot plants, or in mixed planting such as this one at a large Cactus & Succulent nursery in USA.

In the 70's several more species and cultivars in the Euphorbia milii complex were introduced into cultivation (for more details see: CROWN OF THORNS HYBRIDS by Stephen Jankalski) and soon crosses were made- Ed Hummel's hybrids are well known, at least in the USA and are often offered by Californian succulent growers. I am not very familiar with these but they show a wide range of flower color and plant form variations. They do not seem to have been specially selected for pot use and flower size is generally small to medium.

Other hybrids were made, the most notable effort being by Somona in Germany: again the details are not known to me but the hybrids were definitely well established in the early 90's and were specially selected for the European pot plant market. These were all crosses using Euphorbia milii and Euphorbia lophogona. The latter is a good pot plant, takes shade, flowers freely (white to dark pink flowers) and has thick, shining green leaves with grayish vein markings. It's only down side is that it is not self branching.


Euphorbia lophogona: a species with broad leather leaves. The plant seen here is a poor clone with respect to flower size & color.

The Somona hybrids are self branching with deep green, often large, thick leaves. They are free flowering with color ranging from cream through various shades of pink to red. Their flowers demonstrate to a remarkable degree the habit of some hybrids to form flowers from within flowers ("hose in hose"). This seems to be a lophogona trait and gives a much more colorful pot plant with flowers that can last months. These hybrids show leaves with Euphorbia lophogona characteristics (though with little or no vein markings) and flattened thorn clusters dispersed on the stem. The Somona hybrids are protected by plant patents and propagation is prohibited. Nevertheless, I have seen clones being sold in S.E.Asia and these may be part of the origins of the Thai hybrids.

There are several interesting articles on the net giving general information on the Crown of Thorns with particular emphasis on their culture, landscape use and some information regarding cultivars in USA. Check the following links:

1.Crown_of_Thorns Makes a Comeback
2.Crown_of_Thorns -homeowner
3.Crown_of_Thorns -production



What looks like a Somona hybrid outside a balcony in Taipei, Taiwan A new European hybrid at the NTV fair, very similar to Somona hybrids.

MODERN EUROPEAN HYBRIDS:

In Europe, several other hybrid clones have been selected, many with little obvious Euphorbia lophogona influence. A number of them are protected; the most popular one seems to be the variety Vulcanus, characterized by compact growth, floriferous nature and relatively large red flowers to give a very attractive pot plant. It is also resistant to thrips damage, a vital factor in European greenhouse production.



Vulcanus in a 12 cm pot- lots of color. Large scale cultivation of this hybrid. The light colored patch in the background is a new pink variety on trial- it proved susceptible to thrips



Two new hybrids under trial with the same Vulcanus grower - thrips resistance was his No.1 concern.

The number of hybrids being offered in Europe are increasing but with little really superior material. Using the Thai hybrids, several firms have introduced hybrids to give a "palette" of color but so far with limited results. On the whole the new hybrids lack flower size and concentration and still are very traditional colors. They also have to prove themselves with the growers as well as in the market. The photographs below show some of the developments in Euphorbia milii in Europe in recent years.



Some new hybrids for small pot production, most likely Danish.

One interesting use of EUPHORBIA milii is in the production of very small pots (4 cm to 6 cm) by Danish growers. This plant is a very good option for this use as it is very drought tolerant without being too susceptible to rot on over watering (very small pots inevitably face alternate conditions of drowning and drought) and will flower at very small sizes. The color range is still very limited-this probably reflects limited availability as well as breeders' and growers doubts about consumer acceptance.



Two very mediocre offerings in Dutch auctions- poor color and minimal impact.



Some of the better selections, with obvious Poysean influence Relatively unattractive selection with scattered white flowers.

THAI POYSEAN HYBRIDS:

Poysean is the name that Chinese immigrants in Thailand gave to Euphorbia milii- it means Eight Saints- after the Eight Saints of Chinese mythology, each one representing a different force: Health, Bravery, Riches, Beauty, Art, Intelligence, Poetry and the last one being the ability to Overcome Evil.
(http://aggie.kps.ku.ac.th/ag-ext/crnthorn/poygen2/Poygeni.htm).

Old Euphorbia milii hybrids typically have eight flowers in each bunch, hence this name. The Thai believe that keeping Poysean outside the house or in the balcony or terrace brings these positive forces to the house & owner- this explains, to a certain extent, the popularity of Poysean in Thailand itself. Thus Poysean is an old Thai-Chinese name for the Crown of Thorns, not a new one for the large flowered Thai hybrids.

In the early 90's there was a sudden emergence of large flowered Euphorbia milii hybrids in Thailand. On my many trips to Bangkok, I have asked a lot of people there about the origins of the large flowered Poysean but no one seems to remember how these arose or where but I am pretty sure it wasn't the result of a planned breeding effort; most likely a sport or mutation with large flowers arose spontaneously and Thai growers, ever vigilant, propagated this plant. Under tropical conditions and in the open, cross pollination and further selection ensured the rest.

During my first exposure to these hybrids (in the early 90's), most had medium sized flowers and the color range was limited. Prices were high, typically tens to hundreds of US Dollars per plant. A few clones with the very large flowers we see today were even more expensive. Wealthy collectors, Poysean clubs and competitive shows along with media exposure led to crazy prices.


Ek Vilai - Overall the best yellow cultivar from Thailand: very floriferous, deep green, proportionate leaves, compact growth and good self branching characteristics.

As with Adeniums, extremely buoyant economic conditions fuelled this boom. I know on good authority that at one point, an excellent yellow flowered clone (probably Ek Vilai) was sold for 2 million Thai Baht after winning a Gold Medal at a show. (This was for the whole lot of plants of this clone on an exclusive basis, not a single plant). This was a large fortune for a small time grower and this kind of incentive was vital to the growth of the Poysean trade. It meant that any and all seedlings were grown to flowering and the slightest improvement was named and sold. In time it led to the availability of a huge range of flower colors in a range of sizes and on extremely varied plants.

I doubt that anyone has ever counted the number of named Poysean hybrids. Nevertheless, the frequently quoted figure of 2000+ different cultivars of Poysean in Thailand is almost surely untrue- even if one were to count all the ones ever named it would not come to this figure. If we count only the hybrids that are in some way unique (though not necessarily superior and worthwhile) the number would probably be in the low hundreds at best; most of these are now lost to cultivation as Poysean have become commodities with one low price for all cultivars, making it impractical to grow the slow, very highly floriferous ones.

By the mid 90's, scores of hybrids were being sold at Bangkok's Chatuchak Weekend market, along with lots of Adenium hybrids.


Poysean hybrids for sale at Chatuchak Week End market in Bangkok - plants are actually sold there on Wednesdays & Thursdays and this is where you can see the newest and best selections, though maybe not the cheapest. Best way to get there: take the BTS Skytrain to Mo Chit station-it's a short walk from there.

For a grower of tropical plants with money in the pocket it was the most exciting place to be. The bottom dropped out of this market in '97-'98, when the S.E. Asian economy tanked- most growers simply went bust or (with surprising speed) changed to other crops.



Some Poysean in bloom I bought in Bangkok in 2002 for less than 50 US cents retail- they are in seven inch pots. Typically the cultivars name is written in Thai on the pot side.

There has been a revival of sorts in the last couple of years, mostly due to export demand. Local prices are extremely low and only specialized and very skilled growers survive. There are probably less than ten serious growers around Bangkok, several of them members of one large family. High quality material is produced in bulk and shipped world wide.



Poysean hybrids, both new & old, on sale at the December show in Bangkok, held every year at the Royal Botanical gardens (Suan Luang Lor Kao, I think!)



What looks like a good, colorful crop of Poysean plants in a Dutch greenhouse trial reveal itself as a failure on closer examination: too small a pot, plants kept too dry and very close spacing for a plant that grows quite large give an unsaleable crop.

At the collector level these hybrids are very popular, especially in tropical areas of the world and in the USA.

Several efforts have been made to introduce Thai hybrids into USA and Europe as mainstream floriculture crops, with limited success. So far they haven't done too well for several reasons: poor cultivar selection by importers is the most important. Others include plants that are intrinsically large, making them costly to produce and pack; sensitivity to ethylene damage making boxing almost impossible and shipping long distances risky; little or no research on the needs and physiology of these plants etc.

In Bangkok one occasionally sees new clones- a very good recent addition is called "Tub Tim Siam" or "Siam Ruby" - but lack of exposure to western pot plant and grower/ market needs along with the language barrier makes it virtually impossible for the Thai growers to do meaningful selection for Western markets by themselves.



Two new, very similar Poysean hybrids from the same grower: on left Duang Thaksin and on right Mongkhon Thaksin. These two illustrate the problems that plague cultivar selection in Thailand: the one on left is much superior, with large flowers well exposed and nice leaves. The one on right has flowers hidden in the foliage and leaves that are large and floppy. With flowers so similar, only one should have been released. The similarity in names also shows how difficult it is for westerners to keep track of Poysean cultivars.

EUPHORBIA MILII in TAIWAN:

Southern Taiwan has a rich horticultural scene, especially for Adeniums. The climate is very tropical. We see mostly Poysean being grown here, with some European hybrids being propagated too.


The climate in southern Taiwan is tropical enough to use Euphorbia milii as a landscape plant- an example of a compact cultivar in a beautiful granite container.



One cultivar I found unique to Taiwan, a micro mini substantially smaller than Euphorbia milii var. imperitae. They use it for tiny landscapes and in mame bonsai pots. We have used it for our crosses.

I met only one breeder; he specializes in selecting small sized hybrids on his terrace. The following pictures show some of his best plants



Two of the best Taiwanese hybrids. The one on right has a particularly bright, almost glowing color.

TROPICA HYBRIDS:

Our own breeding and selection program is over 15 years old. In contrast to most other programs, we started with several different species and compact Euphorbia milii clones- to the best of my knowledge we have the widest gene pool of any current Euphorbia milii program. From the outset the aim was to produce "Western Style Pot Plant" material but with the inherent ability to take the high heat levels of the tropics.

By "Western Style Pot Plant" I mean a plant selected primarily for relatively small pots (10 cm to 20 cm or so), with plant and leaves in proportion to each other & to the whole. All along, enough care has been taken during the selection process to ensure such things as erect, self supporting flower stalks, well exposed flowers (rather than hidden amongst the leaves), overall deep green and attractive foliage etc.

This is distinct from the Asian model where flower size and color are given preference over almost everything else. Partly this reflects a market still in "collector mode" and partly cheaper labor and overheads. Thus, for example, large flower bunches on weak stalks are routinely supported by thin, inconspicuous bamboo sticks in Thai markets.

I got back my first Euphorbia hybrids and species plants from Europe in 1982- this trip included a visit to the Heidelberg Botanical Gardens and several good succulent nurseries in England. I also got a chance to go through several hundred wild collected plants of different Euphorbia species at a greenhouse in Germany and select the choicest clones. On the same trip I also got back some Adenium species as well as numerous other plants including Kalanchoe and African violets. The difficulties in keeping alive these latter plants that are considered quite tropical in Europe prompted me to think of breeding and selecting truly tropical and heat resistant yet colorful plants for the tropics.

After some thought I settled on the Euphorbia milii complex (Crown of Thorns) and Adenium hybrids as the two main groups for further effort. Our Euphorbia breeding & selection program is thus in conjunction with and complementary to the program for Adeniums started at the same time with the same basic objective: quality color under harsh tropical conditions.

Two things gave a fillip to our breeding program: the availability of the Poysean hybrids and the growing realization that both Euphorbia milii and Adenium hybrids have potential as mainstream floriculture crops in Europe, USA and elsewhere if enough R&D is done and the plants are marketed well; so far we haven't found suitable partners to do this with Euphorbia milii but I am hopeful for the future- this Euphorbia website is aimed primarily at finding such partners rather than sell the plants per se.



Our numbered selections in full bloom- each plant is different. Some of the seedlings grown for selection- these are mostly in 12cm round pots on benches.

The current state of our Euphorbia milii breeding and selection program is as follows:

First, we have selected and numbered over two hundred superior selections with a wide range of plant heights & forms, leaf shapes, flower sizes, colors and patterns. From this rich smorgasbord I am hard put to enforce any sort of classification but would roughly categorize them size-wise into dwarf, compact, regular and large. We have plants well outside both ends of this spectrum - micro minis and giants but these are more of collector interest or for landscaping. Each has a different application or market niche. More distinctly superior seedlings continue to be added from a breeding and selection program that raises 3000 to 5000 new plants from seed every year. Every year we seem to get a general improvement in the quality of the plants and lately we are seeing complex yet very attractive new flower colors on highly floriferous compact plants, very distinct from the flat colors we see in our earlier selections and elsewhere.

Second, we have identified a mutant that will regularly produce terminal blossoms (as compared to the axillary ones in most clones).



Terminal blossoms in a large flowered hybrid. Since flowers continue to form and each bunch lasts for weeks, the show goes on for months. A tiny seedling in a 6cm sq pot exhibiting the same characteristic.

Given adequate R&D and further breeding this characteristic can be developed into a range of plants with different flower colors that would present a spectacular inflorescence and make excellent Flowering Pot Plants for holidays or impulse sales along the same lines as Poinsettia, Chrysanthemum or Kalanchoe. Already we have plants with large flowers showing this trait.


Double flowers on this brightly colored hybrid- each flower have multiple bracts rather than the usual two.

Other interesting mutants and selections have been identified, such as clones with double flowers (with multiple bracts in each cyathium, not hose in hose) and some almost thornless "Crown of Thorns".


One of several clones we have that are virtually without thorns. The flowers are modest at best but these plants can be the basis for a long term breeding objective for thornless "Crown of Thorns"

Of course, all I can really say is that we have a large number of hybrids which are good to spectacular under our conditions: how they perform under greenhouse conditions in more temperate parts of the world remains to be seen but most are likely to do as well if not better (It is my experience that a dedicated Dutch grower can do a far better job with particular plants than we can with the huge range we grow- this is due to several reasons but most obvious is their hands-on approach and daily interaction with the crop). No doubt they would be superb additions to tropical regions but since most of these areas do not have Plant Breeders Rights so far, there is no incentive to release the plants there. Maybe in time a business model can be developed whereby it is profitable to sell large numbers of plants to tropical countries at relatively low prices but that is possible only when we have free and easy access to these markets, an advantage Thai growers increasingly enjoy as buyers from all over the world go to Bangkok to see and source new plant material.

YOU CAN SEE PICTURES OF MANY POYSEAN AND TROPICA HYBRID CULTIVARS IN CULTIVAR CATALOG

PLANT BREEDERS RIGHTS: AN ASIAN PERSPECTIVE

One of the bigger dilemmas facing a plant breeder/ developer in Asia (and elsewhere too) is to decide what to do when he has a new plant that he thinks has commercial potential.

Most countries in Asia are not signatories to the UPOV and so protection for plant varieties within Asia is not possible. In those countries where it can be done, a non-citizen cannot apply directly for a patent: he must assign the rights to someone else who is a citizen. The initial costs are prohibitive, especially when converted to Asian currencies and it's even costlier (and not really practical) to monitor & protect the plants from unauthorized propagation.

There are other considerations as well: should one first propagate the plant to substantial numbers and then apply for protection (thus maximizing the period of time for which one can enjoy the protection and be able to get a protected plant into the market faster) or should one protect first and propagate later (thereby making certain that the stock buildup is worth the effort, time and money but risk having large stocks of a dud plant). Also, should one get the plant to be tested first in the potential markets, protected by a "trial agreement"?

Current thinking seems to be in favor of accepting that the country of origin of a biological entity (natural or artificial) must get a share in the economic rewards gained from it. Thus a recent BBC documentary of the botanist Fortune's shipment of tea seedlings and plants from China to India (leading the to subsequent decimation of the Chinese tea industry due to competition from India) describes it as the "greatest robbery in human history"; given the magnitude of the economic fall out it was but most likely it wasn't seen as unethical then. The recent ruckus over the patenting of Thai Poysean hybrids and grafted Euphorbia lactea Crests in Europe shows that a similar trend continues today.

However, even now there seems to be no easy way for a breeder/developer in a developing country to make money from new varieties. One option is to do what the Thai growers do: propagate & sell new plants as soon as possible, at the highest possible price in the largest possible numbers. No doubt someone in the "West" will pick up the plant and patent it but in the meanwhile the original growers have made quite a bit from the variety.



Some Poysean hybrids were introduced as new plants at the NTV fair in 2002. The clones selected were some of the least suitable!

And as the experience with the Poysean hybrids in Europe shows, patenting is the easy part: taking a new plant and making it a successful long term crop is another ball game altogether.

As always, the middle path may be the best- a genuine partnership between the breeder and the western grower. The breeder/developer, using his gene pool, cheaper labor and smaller overhead costs can breed, select and propagate new varieties. The western grower can test, trial and promote the varieties, develop growing protocols & post harvest treatments, protect and patent the varieties- this kind of partnership, where both the risks as well as the rewards are shared, may be the only practical way forward for both.

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