The cactus-like Bushveld candelabrum (Euphorbia cooperi) is as fascinating as it is strikingly photogenic. There are only a select few of these succulents on Londolozi, but at this time of year they are hard to miss, for they are sporting an impressive set of shiny red fruits.

The candelabra species has acquired its name because of its natural growth pattern. The plant looks as though it should take the place of one of those candle holders you would expect your grandmother to have standing on her dining room table.

The branches are lined with multiple sets of sharp thorns in pairs (the plant’s external defence), with each individual thorn lying directly opposite one other from the base all the way to the crown. In between these layers of thorns you find a smooth and fleshy green skin or epidermis. And the crown of each branch is home to a remarkable number of gleaming red fruits; the ones I alluded to earlier.

Sharp spines act as a physical defence.

As pretty as the candelabra is, it is a plant not to be trifled with.

What lies under this waxy layer of green skin is, for me, what makes this plant really interesting. There is a poisonous milky white latex within the flesh of all the Euphorbia plant species (their internal defence). The Bushveld candelabrum has particularly poisonous latex which is known to be so potent that if you had to allow even a drop on your eye it could cause blindness. When the latex makes contact with areas of soft skin it causes a rash and eventually blisters.

The latex of the bushveld candelabrum has many traditional uses. My favourite, because I am a fisherman myself, is the story of how it has been used to catch fish. The locals in the area would slice off a number of the stocky branches from the tree. They would then throw these branches into a large round grinding pot. Using a stocky, smooth wooden baton, they would then grind the flesh and latex into a workable substance. The resultant thick mix would be poured into a small pool of water within which the locals knew there were fish. Over the course of a few hours, or perhaps overnight, the poisonous substance would permeate through the water and subsequently latch onto the gill lining of the fish. This would cause many of the fish to be stunned but not killed (preserving the meat) and they would rise, belly up, to the surface of the water where the fishermen waited eagerly to reap the harvest.
The skill lay in choosing the correct amount of poison so as to make sure that the just enough would be caught in the fish’s gill lining yet not affect the meat enough for it to be dangerous to eat. The fish were then boiled or seared on hot coals to provide a delicious, well earned meal!

The milky latex contained in the fleshy stems is to be avoided.

The poisonous latex has also been used to tip the sharp points of arrowheads and used in hunting expeditions. It has also been traditionally used in the Lowveld region as a slow-working emetic; a few drops of latex placed in breakfast porridge to cause the purging and cleaning of the bodily system in the days following.

The fruits are fed on by a number of species including ants, wasps and other various insects, as well as a number of bird species and mammals such as baboons and monkeys.

The bushveld candelabrum is a striking beauty in this landscape, standing out because of its unique shape and because of its history. Like many other plants, it has a wide variety of traditional uses; one just needs to have access to the traditional wisdom first, because trying to use its deadly latex in the wrong way could land you in all sorts of trouble!

Filed under Wildlife

About the Author

Bruce Arnott

Field Guide

Bruce grew up on a plot of farmland in the midlands of KwaZulu-Natal. He always had a passion for the bush and the outdoors, having been camping and fishing since he was a young boy. He attended school in the Natal midlands after ...

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4 Comments

on Beautiful But Deadly

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Amanda Ritchie

Such an interesting post, Bruce. I didn’t know anything about this cactus before, so thanks for sharing your knowledge!

Jeff Rodgers

Also interesting, if I remember correctly, is that black rhino can happily eat this plant with no ill effects.

Amy Attenborough

Hi Jeff. You’re you’re right. They also eat other toxic plants such as Tamboti’s too with no ill effects. Thanks so much, Amy

Judy Hayden

Very interesting. I never considered that a succulent would be so poisonous. So the fruit is not dangerous just the nectar within the plant itself, correct? The animals are smart enough to figure this out. That is amazing. A treat with possible death if eaten incorrectly. Thank you for this new knowledge.

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