A perennial with looks more appealing than its name, gopher plant (Euphorbia rigida, Euphorbia biglandulosa), a Mediterranean native, is a ground-covering shrub suitable for U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 7 through 10a. Elsewhere, it's a spring-blooming annual. More flatteringly known as silver spurge, gopher plant brings year-round interest to desert gardens. Use it as a border edging, in rock gardens or as a container accent with other heat- and drought-tolerant plants.
Stems and Leaves
Rising from a basal rosette of grayish-green leaves, the stems of a fully grown gopher plant stand 1 to 2 feet high, with a 2- to 3-foot spread. They gradually bend and curve as they grow. From late winter or spring until the stems finish flowering, fleshy, quilled silvery-green leaves spiral around them. Once a gopher plant sets seed, its stems die back to the basal clump. Tinged with red or bronze in fall, the rosette remains evergreen in warmer parts of its USDA growing range. In the colder ones, it dies back in fall and returns in spring.
Flowers and Seeds
Depending on where you live, expect clusters of yellow- or chartreuse-bracted flowers to start crowning gopher plant's branch tips between early February and April, and to persist for two months. As they fade, small brown seedpods take their place. Unless removed, they explode when ripe and hurl their seeds around the garden. Cutting the stems back by half before the seed sets stimulates new growth, keeps the plant dense and prevents its unwanted spread.
Planting and Maintenance
Gopher plant tolerates a wide range of rocky, sandy or loamy soils, but it performs best in a light, fast-draining and relatively infertile one. Give it partial to full sun, with four or more hours of direct sunlight each day. It doesn't need fertilizer, and does well with monthly watering during hot, dry summers. To water, slowly soak the plant with a drip line hose until its entire root ball is wet. In cool or rainy months, skip watering altogether.
Pests and diseases ignore gopher plants. The only problems you're likely to encounter from growing it come from the plant itself. The major drawback is its toxic sap. Plant the succulent where it won't endanger people or pets. When you prune the stems after flowering, wear waterproof gloves, protective clothing and safety goggles so spattering sap won't blister your skin or irritate your eyes. When you're done pruning, dispose of the cut stems in sealed plastic bags and wash your clothes. Ingesting large amounts of the sap also causes serious digestive distress, so keep pets or children who might be tempted to nibble on the plants away.
Gopher Plant Virtues
Having toxic sap isn't all bad. Gopher plant gets that common name from the fact that gophers, moles and other burrowing wildlife give it a wide berth. Deer also stay away, so you can rely on having plants free of chomped leaves or trampled stems. The sap has no effect on bees and other pollinators, and you can expect streams of them visiting your gopher plants as long as they’re in bloom.
- Santa Fe Master Gardener: The Glory of the Gopher Plant
- Zipcodezoo.com: Euphorbia Rigida
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Euphorbia Rigida
- Gardening Oracle: Gardening in Tucson, Phoenix, and the Desert Southwest -- Euphorbia Biglandulosa -- Gopher Plant
- Arizona State University Extension: Euphorbia Rigida
- Master Gardeners of Santa Clara County: Euphorbia Rigida
- Photo Credit Zoonar RF/Zoonar/Getty Images
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