African Milk Tree (Euphorbia Trigona)

General Description

The African milk tree (Euphorbia Trigona) is a succulent. It is sometimes misclassified as a cactus because of its spiny structure and its ability to grow in arid conditions. It is a beautiful plant, but not necessarily a friendly one. Like many other spurges, when cut or broken it exudes a milky white sap that can be irritating to skin, especially mucous membranes such as eyes and nose.  When repotting or dividing Euphorbia Trigona, growers are advised to wear eye protection and to work in a well-ventilated area. And, of course, it needs to be kept away from children and pets.

The good news is that the African milk tree makes a lovely background plant. This makes it easy to place it at the back of a bed or display where its upright branches, growing a tall as nine feet out of doors, can be a foil for shorter, friendlier plants. It is available as a basic green plant or with an attractive reddish tinge. The upright stems have a flat structure with ridges. The ridges are where the succulent grows spines, as well as small leaves. These small leaves are one of the things that distinguishes the plant from cactus, because the latter do not grow leaves.

When grown indoors in containers, the African milk tree will usually grow to between two to four feet tall. It prefers well-drained, sandy loam and is one of the many plants that enjoys infrequent, but thorough watering. The pot should then be allowed to drain, perhaps even placing a spacer beneath the pot to make sure the liquid drains through and does not puddle.

It likes plenty of light, and might even need some artificial lighting during the shorter days of the year when grown indoors. Care should be taken not to let it become overwarm in a sunny window, as it can sunburn.

It is an extremely hardy plant that has few pests or problems. The ones that growers are most likely to encounter are root rot, mealy bugs, scale or the fungal infection known as Cork disease.


Scientific Name: Euphorbia Trigona

Common or Alternate Names: Cathedral Cactus, high chaparral, Abyssinian Euphorbia, candelabra cactus

Genus: EuphorbiaThere are over 2000 different types of Euphorbia, including poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), and dàjǐ, or Peking spurge (Euphorbia pekinensis), as well as the African Milk Tree (Euphorbia Trigona).   The term “spurge” for these plants comes from late middle English. It was a shortening is the French word espurge, which was derived from the Latin word expurgarae, meaning to cleanse. Historically, it was used as a purgative. Eurphorbia are characterized by a milky white sap that can be extremely irritating to skin, especially to mucous membranes. The sap is not soluble in water especially after it hardens, but can be removed using an emulsifier such as milk or soap.


Interesting Stories (Mythology)

The scientific name Eurphorbia is derived from the Greek physician Euphorbus, who  was physician to Prince Juba II of Mauretania. Euphorbus credited with discovering the type of plant, and with using it as a powerful laxative. Like many ancient medical practices, modern growers are not advised to try using it in this manner.



Euphorbia Trigona is native to West Africa.



Although the milk tree can be grown from seed, it is usually propagated by using cuttings. Before you begin working with your milk tree, gather protective gear and materials that can be used for clean-up. It is advised that gardeners wear rubber gloves and eye protection when working with the African milk tree, and that you work in a well-ventilated area. An outdoor workbench is ideal.

Use a pair of scissors or hand-held pruners to cut an arm of the milk tree off at its base. You can immediately tuck the cut end of the arm into a prepared pot of damp soil. If desired, you can dry the branch a little so that the sap coagulates, then dip it into rooting hormone before planting.

After cutting and planting, place the parent and baby in an area that has plenty of indirect, but bright light. Immediately use soapy water to clean your cutting device and any areas where the sap might have spilled during this operation.



If you live in an area where temperatures usually remain above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, you can plant your African milk tree outside. If it has already been started indoors, it can easily be planted in the spring. It might need watering during the first week or two while it is becoming established. Once well-rooted, these hardy Euphorbias are extremely self-sufficient and will do well in your low-water, well-drained garden area.

As container plants, water only after the top two inches of soil in the pot have become extremely dry. Water thoroughly, but ensure that the pot will drain well so that there will not be any standing water in the pot. As noted, root rot is one of the leading causes of problems with Euphorbia Trigona.

Keep a close watch for mealy bugs, scale, or cork disease. Mealy bugs or scale can be treated as you might any houseplant, but areas inflicted with cork disease need to be cut off and disposed of in the trash – not composted.


Additional Notes:

Euphorbia Trigona, or African Milk Tree is deciduous. It will drop its leaves in winter, so do not be alarmed when it begins losing them in fall. The new leaves should quickly grow back in, especially if it is a house plant.

The African milk tree does bloom, but the blossoms are tiny. They are usually white or yellow, and appear in the spring or early summer. Plants grown in containers might not blossom at all.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top