Strange plant is like a bad hair day

On the Trail

EARNS ITS NAME—An Euphorbia tirucalli plant, more commonly known as the “pencil bush.”

EARNS ITS NAME—A Euphorbia tirucalli plant, more commonly known as the “pencil bush.”

When I’m experiencing a seriously bad hair day, that’s when it appears that a plant known as Euphorbia tirucalli, commonly called “pencil bush,” has sprouted atop my head.

This plant, which can range from a potted houseplant on a windowsill to a 30-foot-tall landscape tree capable of producing shade, is indisputably one weird-looking character.

Think of a porcupine—with blunted, harmless quills—whose bristling apparatus had malfunctioned, frozen in the upward and outward position.


Or while we’re still on the subject of bad hair, perhaps pencil bush will remind you of Cousin Itt of “The Addams Family” fame, after his hair dryer had short-circuited

I first encountered it in a dumpster in the desert, where a man said he’d already cut up five carloads of his pencil bush, with two more to come.

“This thing is a monster,” he said.

I like monsters, so I loaded several hefty cuttings of the succulent, milky-sap-oozing oddity into my car trunk.

One of my rural Agoura gardening compeers had a heat-punished rough-and-tumble slope in need of something besides failed rosemary shrubs, and one that wouldn’t be a real water-grubber.

The pencil bush turns out to be a mainstay of desert gardens, tolerant of lots of hot sunlight. And it has managed to be popular despite looking unkempt and disorganized, as if it had been groomed inside a wind tunnel, but that’s actually its signature style. Pencil bush is the free spirit among rigid, orderly agaves, aloes and yuccas.

Its smooth, slender leafless branches give pencil bush its common name. It could just as easily be called bare naked bush or the hand plant. Branches extend every which way, resembling outspread fingers, emanating from a rather rough-textured conventional trunk. The latter can become quite stout as the plant matures, especially if the plant is ultimately trained into tree form.

To love it as a tree, you simply have to accept the absence of leaves, flowers, catkins, cones, fruit and all the other traditional trappings of authentic trees. But it still sheds—shriveled gray bits about the size of wooden matchsticks.

Adding to the pencil bush’s offbeat traits is its tendency to produce new growth with an incandescent orange-pink hue, suggesting it may have shipped in from another world. Once I came upon a fan-shaped cutting that eerily suggested something that might catch the eye of a scuba diver drifting above a coral reef.

It is surprising, yet heartening, to see how so many recently remodeled gardens that I’ve passed on my neighborhood walkabouts—stretching from Agoura Hills to Newbury Park— are now prominently featuring this peculiar plant. Local residents took the drought seriously. In removing their thirsty lawns and revamping their yard space they made an important, responsible decision to embrace desert plants, whose water needs won’t stress any reservoir.

Gloria Glasser is a freelance writer. Reach her by email at

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