The Honey Spurge – Euphorbia mellifera
I recently visited Madeira, where the ancient subtropical Laurel forests, known as the laurisilva, cling to the mountain slopes, dripping wet from persistent ocean mists. This UNESCO world heritage site is one of the few locations left in the world where you can still observe this forest type, which was once widespread across Southern Europe. The forests started declining millions of years ago, following the increasingly dry Pliocene and the low temperatures during the last ice age. A few isolated habitats of the Laurel forest have survived to this day, in areas with high humidity and mild, stable temperatures, such as Madeira.
It was here I stumbled upon one of my favourite shrubs, the Honey Spurge, scattered through the forest understory. The Honey Spurge (Euphorbia Mellifera) is undoubtedly one of the best plant introductions from Madeira, alongside Geranium Maderense and the Madeiran Foxglove (Isoplexis Spectrum). Despite its mild native habitat it has proven relatively frost hardy in the UK when planted in a sheltered and sunny location.
One of our best specimens at Gravetye Manor is a beautifully dome shaped shrub located in the Little Garden. It has a tidy framework and elegant strap shaped leaves, though nothing compares with the heavy scent of honey spread by the small brown-orange flowers. With a height of about 2 metres, ours hasn’t yet reached the proportions of the older specimens I spotted in Maideira, which towered several meters over me, with trunks the size of a man’s arm and covered in layers of lichen. That would, however, be an unreasonable demand in our cool climate. Nonetheless, it remains one of my absolute favourites and I look forward to burying my face in it on a daily basis to catch that heady scent of honey. Let me leave you with a word of warning though; don’t touch its milky, white sap, as it can cause skin irritation when exposed to light.