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Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii

Dr Henry Oakeley
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Credit: Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii. Credit: Dr Henry Oakeley. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

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Euphorbia characias L. subsp. wulfenii Euphorbiaceae. Mediterranean spurge. Distribution: Southern Europe, Noth Africa. Dioscorides (Beck, 2005) advises that two obols (just over one gram) of the sap of E. characias, made into pills, caused vomiting and diarrhoea. He recognized the corrosive effect of the sap and advised coating oneself with oil or suet when extracting the sap in case it splashed onto the skin and coating the pills with wax to avoid the sap burning the throat. He used it for toothache, applied to the tooth as a depilatory for treating warts, cutaneous papillomas (skin tags), cancers, gangrene, and fistulas. Recent studies have shown Euphorbia peplus sap to be effective against basal cell carcinomas and other skin cancers. The latex contains a copper-containing amine oxidase, a lectin, lipase, peroxidase, and a diamine oxidase. In vitro the latex is synergistic with ketoconazole against Candida albicans (thrush). All Euphorbia have a toxic white latex, and in Europe this has been used as a folk remedy to treat warts (hence German name of Wortwurt). Gerard (1633) apparently did not believe that the sap of Euphorbia was corrosive, for he writes: ‘I tooke but one drop of it into my mouth which neverthelesse did so inflame and swell in my throte that I hardly escaped with my life.’ It can cause skin allergies, and the smoke from burning them is toxic. The genus is named for Euphorbus (fl. circa 10 BC – 20 AD), the Greek physician to the Berber King Juba II (c. 50 BC – 23 AD) of Numidia Photographed in the Medicinal Garden of the Royal College of Physicians, London.

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