Beauty is only skin deep
One of the more familiar silhouettes on the savannah is the tree euphorbia (Euphorbia ingens), also known as the candelabra tree and naboom. Although they are closely associated with the Northern provinces, Euphorbia ingens is in fact also distributed throughout Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal and the lowveld. It is usually seen towering above rocky outcrops or growing in deep sand within the bushveld.
The name candelabra tree is derived from the way in which the branches of this large plant, which can grow up to 10m tall, spread upwards in a balloon-like shape from a solitary trunk, much like those of a cactus. The small flowers, borne on the end of the stems, add to the cactus-like appearance of the candelabra tree.
These greenish yellow blooms grow along ridges of the segmented branches and turn into a rich red-purple fruit over time. Seed is distributed when the fruits pop open, flinging them a fair distance from the parent plant and making a sound not unlike that of corn popping.
The tree euphorbia is a hardy, drought-resistant and low maintenance plant, well suited to rockeries and succulent gardens. The milky sap contained within the leaves of the Euphoribaceae family can be extremely harmful to man and animals, so be sure to plant it out of reach of children and pets.
The sap of Euphorbia ingens causes blistering if it touches the skin, and blindness if it comes into contact with the eyes. Inhaling the fumes causes a burning sensation and ingesting it results in severe illness.
It is assumed that this toxicity, along with its armoury of sharp spines, is a deterrent to browsing animals, and insect pests, which avoid the tree euphorbia at all costs. That is, with the exception of the black rhino, which pushes it over and devours the leaves with relish. Birds are also oblivious to the dangers lurking within, and will eat the fruit and berries, and build their nests in dead portions of the stem. Butterflies and bees, as well as numerous species of wasp and fly, are also known to visit the flowers to collect pollen and nectar.
It is not all bad news though; the Venda and Sotho people have long used the juice of the tree euphorbia (in very precise doses) to treat ulcers and cancer, as well as for its purgative properties. Another use for the tree euphorbia is in making doors, planks and boats, although a fire is made around the base to set the sap before cutting it down.