African milk trees are funny-looking plants that will stand out in your desert-plant corner. They require minimal care and will grow quickly.
They can reach up to 8 ft (2.4 m) tall if you repot them regularly and can be propagated into new plants easily.
Originally from Central Africa, Euphorbia trigona looks like a cactus but is actually a succulent.
The plant features long growths with ridges along their lengths. Spines and leaves grow from the ridges and make the lant look as if it were dancing.
African milk tree also goes by the names African milk bush, friendship cactus, good luck plants, candelabra cactus, and cathedral cactus.
The common name, African milk tree, comes from the white latex-like sap that oozes from cuts in the plant. This sap is toxic and very irritating to the skin. Make sure to wear gloves and eye protection when handling your plant.
All of the succulents in the Euphorbia family contain this irritating milky substance. Euphorbia includes many beloved succulent varieties that are easy to care for.
Cousins of the African milk plant include crown of thorns and donkey spurge. The most common variety is the Christmas classic, poinsettia.
Friendship cactus is a tree-like succulent that is used to make living fences in warm climates or kept as houseplants in places where temperatures go below 55 F.
As houseplants, they benefit from dry climates, infrequent watering, and bright sunlight. In this article you’ll find all the details on how to make your African milk tree thrive.
Table of Contents
Afrikan Milk Tree Care
Like most succulents, African milk tree plants are easy to care for. They like well-draining soil and infrequent watering. Keep them in a bright sunny spot but try and provide some shade during the hottest hours. Keep up their vigorous growth by repotting every year and fertilizing during the growing season. Healthy plants should be very resistant to pests and disease. They require little care but be sure not to over-water them as it can be fatal. They have a shallow root system, so if they get too big it’s a good idea to stake them to something. Watch out for the irritating milky substance and spines when handling Euphorbia trigona.
Use a well-draining soil mix with a lot of sand for your African milk tree. Garden centers supply bagged mixes that are specific for succulents and cacti, but you can also make your own.
To make your own soil mix, combine:
- 2 parts potting soil
- 2 parts sand, vermiculite, perlite, or very fine gravel
- 1 part peat moss
The sand will help the water drain away easily and the peat moss will retain enough moisture for the plants’ roots.
Using the correct soil that drains easily makes a huge difference in preventing problems like stem rot, which will quickly be fatal to your succulent.
Although it is often confused for a cactus, African milk trees are actually succulents. This means that they don’t like to go through periods of complete drought. They also don’t like to be overwatered, though.
Maintain the perfect moisture balance for succulents by watering only when the top few inches are dry. This will be different in every home so you’ll have to adapt to your conditions. Keep in mind that it normally takes longer for the soil to dry out in the winter than in the summer.
Water your African milk tree by giving it a good soak at the base without splashing the leaves. When the excess water drains out into the plate, get rid of it and replace the plate so the roots don’t sit in water.
Increase the times between watering in the winter months to just once a month to encourage the plant to enter a dormancy period. During the winter, the succulent stops growing and requires almost no water.
If you don’t allow your plant to go into a dormancy phase every year, after a few years of uninterrupted growth they will become very weak.
Euphorbia trigona are desert plants and are suited for bright sunny areas. The best place for them in the northern hemisphere is to place them by a south-facing window.
If it gets too hot in the summer, they may need some shade during the hottest hours. Direct sun that is too hot with burn the succulent, leaving cosmetic damage.
Shield your plant by placing sun-loving plants around it that will shield it from the hottest rays.
Dry, warm temperatures that replicate the desert are best. African milk trees are quite tolerant to heat but won’t survive cold temperatures below 41 F (5 C).
In very hot places, the plant should be shielded from the sun during the hottest hours. If temperatures don’t go below 55 F (13 C), you can keep Euphorbia trigona outside.
No extra humidity is required for African milk trees. They enjoy dry conditions and will do well in your cactus corner. If anything, you might need a dehumidifier to run in your desert plant room since most homes are too humid.
Humidity will make your succulent vulnerable to pests and disease. It will also make it much easier to over water your African milk tree.
In the growing season, during the spring and summer, feed your African milk tree once a month with a diluted liquid fertilized. Use half the recommended amount of succulent fertilizer or use an organic worm fertilizer.
Don’t fertilize at all during the winter dormancy period and for a few weeks after repotting.
You’ll want to repot your African milk tree every year during the summer. Repoting during the growing season will alow your plant to easily fill out its new home.
To repot an African milk tree, select a terracota pot that is a couple of inches bigger than the original. Upgrading to a much bigger size will overwhelm the plant and it won’t grow well.
Once you have your new pot, buy or prepare some fresh potting soil following the soil indications above. African milk trees are heavy feeders, and it’s a good idea to refresh the soil when you repot the plant.
You can sterilize the old soil and use it as the soil base for a new mix (by combining it with compost and perlite, for example).
Don’t water immediately after repotting like with other houseplants. Instead, ignore it for a couple of weeks before going back to its normal watering and fertilizing schedule.
When you’re repoting make sure to use thick gloves or it will be extremely difficult to avoid being pricked by the spines. Ask a friend to help you when the plant gets big, it will help to have someone hold the pot while you pull out the plant.
African milk trees don’t need to be pruned but it can be good practice for keeping it from getting too heavy for the shallow root system.
If you want to get rid of any stems that are getting in the way, cut them off with a sharp sterilized knife. Follow the same procedure are you would for propagating a cutting and try getting it to root while you’re at it!
When choosing stems to prune, make sure to keep the weight distribution balanced. The shallow root system won’t be able to support a plant that is too heavy on one side.
When your Euphorbia trigona begins to get too top heavy, it’s a good time to consider propagating whatever you trim off. To propagate an African milk tree, start by selecting the stems you want to remove.
Use gloves when handling the succulent to protect yourself from the toxic sap and the prickly spines.
Start by using a sharp sterilized knife to cut the stem at the base. Use a garden hose, watering container or running water from the tap to rinse off the white, latex-like sap that comes out of the cut.
Keep rinsing it with water until the sap stop coming out.
Leave the cutting to dry on clean paper towels in an area with good airflow. After about 3 to 7 days the cutting will dry over and form a scab. While drying, make sure the cutting gets some light but it is never exposed to direct rays.
Once the cut dries over, place the cutting upright in a rooting medium such as perlite. Only water when the medium has completely dried out. After about two months the cutting will establish roots and begin to grow.
When this happens, it’s time to transplant it into its permanent home following the guidelines above.
Euphorbia trigona can sometimes surprise you by putting out blooms in the summer. In order to flower, these succulents either need to be large in size (over 3 meters tall) or have reached a certain maturity (over 20 years old).
In controlled indoor settings, flowering almost never happens. Increase your chances by replication their natural conditions as close as you can and keeping them healthy over the decades.
African milk trees don’t need blooms to be beautiful. The leaves they put out from the ridges are eyecatching enough. However, if you have your heart set on a blooming succulent, this probably isn’t your best choice.
Common Problems with African Milk Tree
Wet and humid conditions will cause your African milk plant to get stem rot. This is the most common mistake with these succulents, but can easily be avoided by not watering until the soil has dried out.
Once the plant has developed stem rot it’s too late to save it. Within days of showing symptoms it will die. You can, however, start a new plant from a healthy cutting by following the instructions in the propagation section.
Pests – Mealy Bugs and Spider Mites
Healthy Euphorbia trigona are very resistant to pests and will rarely be bothered. In less than ideal situations (such as high humidity) they may become vulnerable to pests such as mealy bugs and spider mites.
Neither of these will be fatal to the succulent, but it’s good to treat them when you see them to avoid spreading to other plants.
Get rid of these pests as soon as you spot the infestation by wiping them off with a paper towel dipped in isopropyl alcohol.
You can also go for the organic neem oil option, but make sure to keep your succulent away from bright light for a couple of weeks. The combination of neem oil and bright light can cause some burn damage.
Tips for Growing the African Milk Tree
I know it can be difficult to resist pampering your favorite houseplants, but please don’t overwater your African milk tree.
Overwatering can be fatal and it is almost impossible to recover from. Avoid this by watering infrequently and maintaining a dry environment.
Another key tip is to keep the top from getting too heavy. Euphorbia trigona has a shallow root system, which will easily uproot if the top becomes heavy and unstable.
When pruning and handling the succulent, don’t forget to wear protective gear.
Frequently Asked Questions About African Milk Tree
Is the white sap from African milk trees toxic?
Yes, the latex-like white liquid is toxic and very irritating to the skin. Thick gloves and eye protection should be worn when handling the plant.
Are African milk trees safe to have around pets?
Most pets will know to stay away from the prickly ridges of the African milk tree. Extremely curious animals that persistently challenge the plant might need some extra dissuading. If a quick jab from the plant doesn’t convince them to leave it alone you can carefully cut off the spines.
This might affect growth for a little bit but it won’t hurt the succulent. Take care to wipe off any sap that comes out and don’t let it touch your skin. After the white sap stops oozing, sprinkle the wound with cinnamon to prevent disease.
Are African milk trees really trees?
No, African milk trees are succulents. The way the stems grow makes them look like cactus trees, which is why they’re named this way.
African milk trees are a cactus-looking succulent that grows in a tree-like shape. The leaves that grow from the ridges make the plant look like it’s dancing. If you’re looking for a particularly stunning cultivar, check out the Royal Red variety.
This funny-looking plant is fast-growing and extremely easy to care for. They will stand out and add some interesting texture to your desert plant area.
Provide a good home for them with a sandy soil mix and well-draining pot, place them by a sunny window, and water infrequently.
By largely ignoring Euphorbia trigona, you will be rewarded with a huge, thriving houseplant.
Daniel has been a plant enthusiast for over 20 years. He owns hundreds of houseplants and prepares for the chili growing seasons yearly with great anticipation. His favorite plants are plant species in the Araceae family, such as Monstera, Philodendron, and Anthurium. He also loves gardening and is growing hot peppers, tomatoes, and many more vegetables.