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In the Garden

Q: My friend just warned me about the danger of Euphorbias. He told me that when working around my Euphorbia, I should wear gloves and eye protection. Is this true and if so, why?

A: Your friend probably saw a recent news story on KING 5 about the danger of Euphorbia sap. The story featured a woman whose eye was burned with euphorbia sap while gardening.

Euphorbias, commonly known as spurge, are highly ornamental, drought-tolerant plants. Many feature colorful foliage, and almost all euphorbias produce unusual, attractive chartreuse flowers.

Unfortunately, almost all Euphorbias have caustic sap. It can cause a burning sensation on bare skin and is harmful if it gets in your eye. I found out the hard way years ago when a Euphorbia ‘Glacier Blue’ shot sap right into my eye when I cut off a leaning branch. Fortunately I knew the sap was caustic and immediately washed out my eye. The next day, however, I noticed my eye was stinging and ended up in the emergency room with blisters around my eye.

Since that time, I have met several people who share similar experiences. In those cases, the sap got in their eyes when they wiped sweat from their brow with their sleeves after cutting browning stems back to newly emerging foliage.

Despite the risk, I can’t imagine gardening without several of these spectacular plants in my garden, but I’m careful to plant them where children and pets can’t reach them, and I wear gloves and eye protection whenever I work on or around them. There is, however, one Euphorbia I would never plant. Despite its reputation, the mole plant (Euphorbia lathyris) doesn’t repel moles. It does, however, have extremely caustic sap and spreads aggressively by seed, making grubbing it out a much less than desirable task once it takes over your garden!

Q: Is it true that herbaceous peonies cannot be divided?

A: The belief that a peony will die if you try to divide it is a popular myth. The truth is that peonies live for more than 100 years, and although they’re one of those rare perennials that never need dividing, you can divide them to make new plants.

The best time to divide herbaceous peonies is in fall, right after the foliage turns brown. Cut and remove the old stems. Then carefully dig the clump. Wash the dirt off the roots with a gentle spray of water. You’ll see a bunch of interconnected bulbs, many of which will have white growths, or eyes, similar to what you would see on a sprouting potato. Divide the bulbs into sections using a sharp knife or a lopper, making sure that each division contains at least three eyes.

After dividing the roots, remove any warn out, shriveled bulbs, while leaving the healthy smaller ones to remain attached to the larger mother bulb. Replant in a sunny, well-drained location, after working in plenty of organic compost into the soil. Make sure that the eyes are planted just below the soil surface. It’s definitely not a myth that a peony division planted too deep will never flower.

Ciscoe Morris: “Gardening With Ciscoe” airs at 10 a.m. Saturdays on KING 5.