If there is one plant I always reach out for in my garden designer’s bag of tricks, it’s the Euphorbia. It gives so much and asks for so little. It has a range of species that suit almost all conditions. Used sparingly they are like slow burning fireworks going off around the garden. I like to use them to inject life and colour into otherwise relaxing and restrained planting palates.
If you have a dry, shady spot where nothing will grow, Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae could be the answer. It provides useful groundcover and its acid yellow flowers light up those dark spots where the ivy threatens to take over. It is also a good self-seeder, so not only will it grow where you put it, but it will spread to form a mat of foliage in the most unhospitable of places.
For interesting structure in the garden, it is difficult to beat Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii. Its grey/silver evergreen foliage provides an interesting contrast to the usual green. It looks somewhat exotic and yet it is a tough plant, happy in exposed locations such as the dry garden at RHS Hyde Hall where different forms of the plant happily sit unwatered and battered by the wind. Its acid yellow flower spikes appear in early spring when all around the garden has yet to wake up from its winter sleep. When the flowers have faded, you are left with a great structural plant which provides height in your borders year round.
If you have a moist, free draining spot (lucky you!) and want to try your hand at a more naturalistic planting scheme, try Euphorbia palustris. Tom Stuart Smith repeated this plant in combination with Euphorbia wallichii and Euphorbia cornigera in his 2010 Chelsea Flower Show garden. When used together with Cenolophium denudatum, Hakonechloa macra, Astrantia major and Asarum europaeum (amongst others) it enlivened an otherwise green and white textural scheme to great effect.
If that acid yellow isn’t your thing and you have a damp spot, try Euphorbia griffithii ‘Fireglow’ with its scarlet flowers. Happy by a pond or in any hot border, it adds a variety to a strong coloured planting scheme.
Away from the damp to the sun scorched rock garden, Euphorbia myrsinites is the plant for you. Its grey foliage scampers across the rocks, spreading to one metre with those acid yellow flowers emerging in spring.
Although I am singing warm praises for this useful and versatile plant, I must end with a warning. All Euphorbias have a sap which is very irritating to the skin – so if you are going to tidy up these plants with a little light pruning, make sure you wear gloves as otherwise you’ll be cursing them rather than admiring all they have to offer!
Nigel is an award winning garden designer with studios in London and North Yorkshire. As founder of Medlar & Cob he uses modern, intelligent design to create timeless British gardens rooted in tradition. Take a look at his blog here here - medlarandcob.com/m. You can follow Nigel on twitter @medlarandcob. Read more posts by Nigel.