Floridata Plant Encyclopedia

A Floridata Plant Profile 666 Euphorbia tirucalli

Common Names: pencil tree, milkbush, finger tree, pencil euphorbia, firestick Family: Euphorbiaceae (spurge Family)

pencil tree
Pencil tree growing in its native environment in the Namib Desert in southern Africa.
pencil tree flowers and fruit
The tiny flowers of pencil tree are hidden by petal-like yellow bracts. Seeds form within the red fruits.


Pencil tree grows with single or multiple trunks which support a tangle of light green, pencil thick, succulent branches with little sign of a leaf. Pencil tree can reach a height of 20-30ft (6-9m) with a 6-10ft (2-3m) spread. The main trunk and branches are woody and brownish, but the younger branches are green and cylindrical, looking like so many pencils. The leaves are tiny and are shed early. What is usually called the flower is really a group of petal-like bracts (modified leaves). The true flowers, which are centered within the bracts, are inconspicuous.


Euphorbia tirucalli is indigenous to tropical eastern and southern Africa.


Light: Bright light or sun; pencil tree needs all the light you can give it. Moisture: Water only when dry. The pencil tree thrives as a houseplant in the driest atmosphere with ordinary soil, water, and feeding. Pencil tree is highly drought tolerant. Hardiness: USDA Zones 10B - 11. Pencil tree cannot tolerate freezing temperatures. Propagation: Pencil tree is best propagated by cuttings, which must be dried sufficiently to seal in the milky sap before inserting into potting medium.


Use pencil tree as a patio plant in a container. In tropical and subtropical climates, pencil tree is used as a specimen or background plant, and in mixed hedges. Pencil tree is highly salt tolerant and is often grown in gardens near the beach.

pencil tree
This pencil tree is trimmed to maintain it as a large shrub where it helps screen a swimming pool from strong breezes blowing in from the ocean (it's salt resistant). Note that this has toxic sap and is not recommended for areas frequented by children and pets (see Warning below).


Pencil tree makes a dramatic presentation. It can be trained and shaped to grow in endless patterns. It can be decorated with tiny lights at Christmas and other holidays. Pencil tree makes a great houseplant and is easy to grow. Pencil tree is one of the African "fish poison" trees. When branches are macerated and placed in a stream, the juice will stupefy fish, enabling fishermen to catch them easily. Pencil tree has been used as a source of latex.


All parts of Euphorbia tirucalli ooze a milky sap when damaged or cut. Contact with this sap may cause dermatitis in some people, and in the eyes the sap can cause temporary blindness which may last for several days.

Steve Christman 1/31/00; updated 12/29/07, 7/22/10

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Euphorbia species profiled on Floridata:

Euphorbia characias

( Mediterranean spurge )

Euphorbia graminea

( grassleaf spurge,cushion spurge )

Euphorbia milii

( crown of thorns, Christ plant, Christ thorns )

Euphorbia myrsinites

( myrtle spurge, creeping spurge, donkey tail, myrtle euphorbia )

Euphorbia pulcherrima

( poinsettia )

Euphorbia tirucalli

( pencil tree, milkbush, finger tree, pencil euphorbia, firestick )

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