The Firestick plant garnered some unwelcome publicity in late July 2010, by injuring Pastor Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church in Orange County, California. Pastor Warren’s mistake was to prune his plant, get sap on his hands, and then rub his forehead. The sap caused pain in his eyes, and he needed emergency treatment.
What is this dangerous plant? How can you protect yourself?
Meet the Firestick
Firestick goes by several aliases, including “Indian Tree Spurge”, “Milk Bush”, “Naked Lady” and “Pencil Tree”. It is a succulent cactus – where “succulent” means “fleshy” or “juicy” but not in the sense of “appetizing” or “tasty”. The stem and leaves are, indeed, full of a milky sap. However, the sap is best described as corrosive, irritating, or toxic.
Image: Ralph Hockens
Firestick grows in semi-arid climates, and can survive low temperatures that are just below freezing. They easily grow past 60cm, often to 2m and sometimes more. The most stunning characteristic is the colour scheme. The stems might be green, but the blooms range from pale yellow to fiery red.
Different people report variations in growth and in toxicity of the sap. This might be due to growing different varieties of the plant, or to different allergic sensitivities among people.
Cultivating Dangerous Liaisons
Gardeners who want to cultivate a friendship with the “Naked Lady” should start by getting some protective gloves. You should wear a bandana or other headgear to minimize your need to rub your forehead.
Prepare a container with a cactus-growing soil mix. The container should be about three-quarters full. Plant the firestick as deep as it was in its original container. Water once, so that the ground is moist but does not feel “wet”. Place the firestick in a spot where it can bask in sunshine all day.
The ongoing care is fairly simple. You only need to water when the ground feels absolutely dry. Remember, the leaves are thick and will retain moisture in the poisonous sap. Too much water can kill this plant. Sprinkle some cactus fertilizer on the ground in the late spring. Prune – carefully – any dead branches, just to keep the firestick from becoming top-heavy and unbalanced.
During the fall and winter, you don’t need to water or fertilize this hardy plant. Some gardeners advise protecting it against frost. Others report more damage from cold rainy weather than from a quick frost.
It is possible to start a new plant from a stem cutting, although it may be easier to begin with a whole young plant in soil. Since firestick is a flowering cactus, you may clean and store the seeds and try starting new plants in the way nature does.
Hazardous Material Warnings
The firestick is hazardous. Every expert warns that the sap is an irritant. Some point out that the plant is fragile and easily bruised, so that just brushing past it can leave sap on your body or clothing. As Pastor Warren found, it can send you looking for emergency health care – tricky when your eyes are stinging. When tending your firestick, wear gloves and long sleeves; and avoid touching your face.
On the other hand, the firestick is strikingly beautiful when displaying its intense red blooms. Just don’t cultivate it next to a children’s playground.