‘Sticks on Fire’, Blue Chalksticks, and Termite Prevention

While “familiarity breeds contempt” is a saying that, in truth, does not apply to most human relationships, it is a saying that often, and painfully, rings true when it comes to plants that dot the landscape.

Euphorbia ‘Sticks on Fire’ as backdrop to ‘Judy Garland’ rose

Only yesterday, it seems, Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’ was a curiosity that you seldom saw in anyone’s garden.  ‘Sticks on Fire’ was brought to Southern California from Africa by Gary Hammer, the legendary plant explorer who lived in Lakeview Terrace, nearly three decades ago.  Yet, at the time, ‘Sticks on Fire’ was incongruous with most planting schemes simply because of its succulent character and the fact that “lush and green” were still the bywords when it came to local yards and gardens.  In those days, almost everybody had a lawn bordered by leafy shrubs and it made no sense to bring clashing succulents into the picture.

‘Sticks on Fire’ first came to the attention of the gardening public when the Getty Center Garden opened in 1997.  This garden featured – and still features — a prominent planting of ‘Sticks on Fire.’  Still, change is a slow process.  Who would dare to be the first on their block to plant a radically different looking species such as ‘Sticks on Fire’?
But after a series of droughts, and with no relief to water rationing in sight, garden design has changed.  Lawns have gradually disappeared and, in many cases, cactus and succulent gardens have come to take their place.  Even where complete garden makeovers are not being done, dying leafy shrubs are often replaced with succulents.
Enter ‘Sticks on Fire’.  This plant provides instant color and never needs to be watered.  Moreover, it grows large, topping out at 6-8 feet high and 4-5 feet wide.  And even if it is a plant that, frankly, clashes with most conventional garden fare, it brings perennial color into the garden in a big way with its proliferation of pencil thin stems in yellow, orange, pink, and red.
This, after all, is the best advertisement for ‘Sticks on Fire’ since it is rare to see a succulent of such dimensions sporting brilliant color.  There are many succulents with colorful foliage but nearly all of them are ground covers.  ‘Sticks on Fire’ is among the most colorful succulents and, on top of that, achieves considerable size as well.
The problem with ‘Sticks on Fire’ is that it can get boring in a hurry, and may even become a garish eyesore, when it starts popping up in everyone’s front yard.  If you do decide to go with it, I suggest massing it in one area since it is an iron clad rule of garden design that a massive display of any plant gives the plant in question a presence and an attractiveness that may be absent when it is planted as a single specimen.  Another option would be to cluster drought tolerant plants with yellow, orange, or red flowers around it, such as yellow and orange lantana as well as bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginiae) and red bird of paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima).  I have even seen it planted next to orange-yellow roses, such as ‘Judy Garland, which complement it quite nicely.
There are two “buyer beware” labels that need to be attached to ‘Sticks on Fire’.  First of all, like many succulents, it is cold sensitive and may be damaged or even killed in a frost.  This means that it should not be planted north of Granada Hills and would be an iffy proposition in Woodland Hills – which experiences both the hottest and coldest Valley temperatures – as well.
The second warning has to do with its toxic sap.  All euphorbias – including poinsettia – should be handled with care, but a large fleshy euphorbia like ‘Sticks on Fire,’ which bleeds copious sap when cut, deserves extra caution in this regard.  Its sap can burn your skin and medical attention may be required if the sap gets in your eye.  For this reason, it is recommended that ‘Sticks on Fire’ not be planted next to walkways where passersby could brush by it, break off a branch, and make contact with the sap.

blue chalksticks spreading under blue agaves

Another succulent which has reached a saturation point in local gardens is blue chalksticks.  Two succulent species with leathery pale blue leaves are planted:  Senecio mandraliscae and Senecio serpens.  If you have a choice, plant the latter since it does a better job of hugging the ground.  I can get on board with blue chalksticks when it is used as an ocean around islands of silvery blue agaves, but am less enthusiastic when it surrounds pale green aloes or other succulents which lack blue in their foliar pigmentation.

Wood chip mulch is, by far, the most wonderful material for filling in the empty spaces between the plants in your garden.  Wood chip mulch ultimately becomes the natural carpet upon which your stunning botanical beauties – your floral “furniture” – is arranged, the canvas on which you paint your garden picture  Aside from its aesthetic aspect, woody mulch prevents water evaporation from the soil surface, discourages weeds and, as it decomposes, provides mineral nutrition to your plants.  What’s even better is that woody mulch is free.  Any tree trimmer will be more than happy to save the expense of going to he dump by depositing a load of wood chips on your driveway.
Well, if only life were that simple!  I was recently made aware by Bobbie Orr, entomologist for Western Exterminator, that termites are a danger whenever mulch is piled too high.  In fact, a layer of mulch more than two inches thick can attract termites, which begin to swarm this time of year, to your garden.  Even a thin layer of mulch should never be in contact with the walls or foundation of your home.
Wet wood, after all, which is an apt description of garden mulch, is the material upon which swarming, flying termites land and in which they build their nests.
Moreover, subterranean termite tunnels can reach 150 feet in length so that a four inch layer of mulch, which is commonly recommended for the garden, would be hazardous on nearly all Los Angeles residential lots, few of which are more than 150 feet long.
Tip of the Week:  Orr has a variety of tips, other thank keeping your mulch layer less than 2” high, for termite prevention.  “Trim trees annually,” Orr counsels, “rather than waiting and having to cut off big branches.  Removal of a large limb can lead to the death of the roots that feed that limb.  These dead roots will then be an avenue of entry into the dead core of the tree.” (Note: the most interior wood, known as heartwood, of any tree, although necessary for support, is dead.)
“Plant trees well away from structures,” Orr continues. “This keeps large roots from damaging foundations, creating cracks which provide easy entry for subterranean termites into structures. Stumps and their roots of all sizes make great termite feasts and should be removed.
“Shrubs should be planted and kept at least 18 inches away from structures and, especially, from crawlspace vents.  This will insure free airflow around the home and through the crawlspace.”
Last but not least, “watering should be reduced so that the top of soil dries out between irrigations,” which is an excellent argument for planting water thrifty species.

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