Learn about African milk tree care—it’s a unique succulent that looks like a cactus.
Learn how to grow beautiful African milk trees
Today I’m writing about a sentimental favorite of mine: the African milk tree. While I haven’t been a huge fan of cacti and succulents throughout my houseplant journey, the African milk tree is one that I’ve had for several years now.
My larger plant started as a propagation from my dad’s huge plant. The plant was showing signs of decline in its old age (several decades old—my grandmother originally got it for him), so I took a few cuttings to make sure it could live on.
I’ll touch on that propagation process in this article. But I’ll also cover some African milk tree background info and care needs. Their care is super straightforward and rewarding—fast growers are always rewarding!
- African milk tree care overview
- African milk tree background
- How much light does an African milk tree need?
- How often should I water my African milk tree?
- What is the best soil?
- Temperature & humidity
- How often should I repot an African milk tree?
- How big does African milk tree get?
- How do you encourage African milk tree to branch?
- How do you propagate an African milk tree?
- How poisonous is the African milk tree?
African milk tree care overview
- African milk tree (euphorbia trigona) is a dark green succulent native to Central Africa; covered in small thorn pairs with a single leaf growing between them.
- Prefers bright sunlight, at least 4-6 hours of sunlight daily; can grow well in direct sunlight if acclimated properly.
- Drought-tolerant and should be watered only when at least the top half of the soil dries out.
- Leaf drop is a natural aging process for the plant, but excessive yellowing leaves might indicate underwatering.
- Plant in a well-draining soil mix designed for cacti or succulents.
- Prefers temperatures from 60s to 90s Fahrenheit; can withstand brief cold snaps under freezing.
- Prefers drier air; excess humidity for prolonged periods can lead to fungal issues.
- Fast-growing and may need repotting every 1-2 years.
- Propagate through division or cuttings. But beware of the toxic sap.
- Can be encouraged to branch through pruning but will branch naturally as the plant grows.
- African milk tree sap is highly toxic and can cause severe irritation or health issues, thus necessitating careful handling; keep the plant away from pets and children.
African milk tree background
The African milk tree, or the euphorbia trigona, is a perennial plant native to Central Africa. It’s also commonly known as a good luck plant, likely because of how quickly it grows. As a houseplant, the African milk tree typically grows between 2 and 4 feet tall but can grow taller. If left to grow outside in appropriate conditions, it can reach up to 8 feet.
The stem of the African milk tree is typically a dark green color, and it’s covered in small thorns about 5 millimeters long. The thorns grow in pairs and a single leaf grows between them. New growth comes in as a pretty light green color, and the older leaves eventually drop off of the plant at it grows.
The common name “African milk tree” likely comes from the fact that the plant is from Africa, it produces a milky sap (that is toxic, by the way), and it can grow and branch into a beautiful tree-like structure. And the African milk tree is actually a succulent, not a cactus as you might assume.
It belongs to the euphorbia genus and the trigona species. There are about 2,000 different types of euphorbia plants in the genus, but there are far fewer types of trigona. The only two I’ve seen available locally are the regular all-green kind you’re likely familiar with, and a “rubra” variety with more red.
How much light does an African milk tree need?
The euphorbia trigona likes bright sunlight, so a southern facing window is an ideal location for this plant. At least 4-6 hours of sunlight every day will keep your plant happy and healthy. The more bright light you give the plant, the faster it will grow.
Many times in my care guides, I feel like I’m repeating myself. Bright, indirect light this and bright, indirect light that. But I like to shake things up every now and then with a sun worshipper. And the euphorbia trigona is definitely a sun worshipper!
It can withstand direct sun. Just make sure you slowly acclimate the plant if you’ve had it indoors. It could react negatively if you throw it right into direct sun. Give it some direct morning sun to start. After a few weeks, it can live in direct sun all day. And it will likely explode with growth.
When I first planted my propagations, I had it sitting under a grow light in our bedroom (see photo below). There was one window to the side that got morning sun. This seemed to be more than enough for the plant. When we moved, I had it in a much lower light area while we built the sunroom. The plant slowed its growth, but it still grew. I saw no other signs of suffering.
Now I have it in the sunniest spot in the house: a window in the sunroom that gets absolutely pelted with sun from late morning until the sun goes down. It has thrived, throwing out a few new branches and growing an additional few inches.
How often should I water my African milk tree?
Overwatering is a big problem with African milk trees—and succulents in general, really. This succulent cannot stand sitting in wet soil and will quickly develop root rot if watered too often. I generally recommend letting at least top half of your plant’s soil dry out before watering the plant again.
To be honest, I generally water it only when the soil has dried out completely. As a succulent, the plant is highly drought tolerant and stores water reserves in its fleshy stems. You can use your finer or a moisture meter to check your soil and see if the plant needs water.
Also monitor the plant for signs of stress like puckering or wrinkling. If you see these, water the plant ASAP. It can rebound with a good drink, but don’t make a habit of this. It’s also normal for your plant to drop its older leaves as it ages. But if many leaves on your plant are yellowing and falling off, this could be a sign of underwatering.
My watering routine for my plant is generally once a week in the spring and summer, once every 10-14 days in the late fall and winter. The more heat and sun your plant gets, the more often it may need watered.
What is the best soil?
Any soil designed for cacti or succulents will work great. These mixed will come with things like perlite and sand mixed in to enhance drainage. Euphorbia can grow in poor-quality soils, but they have to be well-draining.
A well-draining soil allows all of the excess water to run out of the pot’s drainage holes when you water the plant. This is essential in helping to prevent too much moisture retention in the soil and, ultimately, root rot.
Want more succulents? Check out my Burro’s Tail Care guide, my tips for Echeveria Care & Growing Echeveria Succulents Indoors, and my Pickle Plant Succulent Care article.
Temperature & humidity
The ideal temperature range for this plant is in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s Fahrenheit. It can withstand very warm temperatures—just make sure you check the soil often to make sure it doesn’t need more water.
Many species of euphorbia can tolerate temperatures below freezing. I haven’t tested my plant, but the Wikipedia for the euphorbia trigona says that it can withstand brief cold snaps down to 27 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s pretty cold!
Based on the low temperatures in the different grow zones, it seems like you could only grow your plant outdoors year round if you live in USDA zones 9, 10, or 11. However, you could consider keeping your plant in a pot and moving it indoors when the temperature gets really low.
In some parts of the country, this could be only 1-2 months out of the year. Here, I’d keep my plant indoors likely December through March…but Maryland weather is always a fun game of dramatic temperature swings.
As far as humidity needs—dry, arid climates are the best option for this drought-tolerant plant. It’s not a fan of humidity. Growing in an area that is too humid can cause pest and fungus issues. This makes it a great choice for a houseplant because our homes are often much lower in humidity than the tropics.
How often should I repot an African milk tree?
You’ll likely have to repot this plant every 1-2 years if the plant is in ideal care conditions. Keep in mind that the shallow root system may mean that you don’t need to size the pot up—just repot with fresh soil to refresh nutrients.
Whenever replanting or taking a cutting for propagation, make sure you wear thick protective gloves (not fabric garden gloves) and handle your African milk tree with extreme care. It’s called a milk tree because of the white sap that drips from the plant whenever it’s been cut or broken. And that sap is highly poisonous. Even when wearing gloves, wash your hands afterward.
How big does African milk tree get?
In ideal care conditions—that is, planted outdoors in a super hot, sun-drenched, warm climate, they can grow up to 8 feel tall. They also can branch out pretty impressively, giving them a tree-like appearance.
Indoors as a houseplant, your African milk tree will probably not get this tall—but it can get quite tall. My dad’s old plant was as tall as he is at about 6 feet tall. My plant has more than doubled in size over the three years since I rooted the cuttings below.
How do you encourage African milk tree to branch?
Euphorbia trigona can—and will—branch on its own with optimal care. However, you can speed up the branching process by pruning the plant. Remember to wear your thick, protective gloves. Not fabric gardening gloves that the sap could seep through.
You can simply cut the stem right where you want it to branch. The branching will take some time, but it will likely sprout just below the cut point. I recommend holding off on pruning until the spring or early summer so the plant can churn out those branches quicker.
How do you propagate an African milk tree?
You can easily propagate African milk tree plants through division or cuttings. Required reminder to protect your skin from the plant’s sap. It is highly irritating to the skin and toxic if ingested.
You can take cuttings off the top of a plant, or you can remove a little arm from the plant for a clean cut. I will cover how I propagated my plant using three cuttings from my dad’s large plant.
First I removed three branches from my dad’s plant. I didn’t use scissors—I removed three “arms” from a smaller main stem so rooting them would be a bit more manageable. Then I let them callus over for a few days. This is a good way to prevent the cuttings from taking it too much moisture and rotting when you plant them.
I planted the cuttings in well-draining succulent soil and watered the plant. I continued to water the plant every week or so to keep the soil moist and encourage rooting. When I noticed new growth, I backed off of the watering and waited for the soil to dry out a bit more before watering again.
You can see what the cuttings looked like below about 2 weeks or so after I’d planted them. The yellowing stem that looks pretty rough did not make it. But the other two did! And those were the start of the lovely plant I have now. Isn’t propagation amazing? 🙂
Want more propagation? See my article about How to Propagate Succulents From Leaves and Cuttings and my tips for Propagating String of Pearls.
How poisonous is the African milk tree?
As I’ve mentioned several times, the euphorbia trigona—and many other types of euphorbia—are highly toxic. They contain a latex-like sap that can severely irritate your skin. Some sources also note that the sap can have extreme health consequences in humans, including blindness if the sap gets in your eye and is not treated (Source: National Library of Medicine).
And no part of the plant should be ingested. I always recommend wearing protective gloves when handling this plant. I also always recommend keeping plants away from animals and humans who may ingest the plant.
It’s worth noting that just having the plant is not a bad thing. You can even touch the plant with no issues. It’s the sap you need to take care around, meaning using those protective gloves when repotting and propagating. And washing your hands thoroughly afterward.
Euphorbia trigona is a unique and easy-to-care-for succulent that thrives in bright sunlight and well-draining soil. While it requires minimal watering, it’s important to avoid overwatering to prevent root rot.
Its straightforward care needs makes it a favorable choice for both beginner and experienced plant enthusiasts. If you’re looking for a plant that thrives with minimal fuss, this succulent is a perfect choice. Let me know you yours is growing in the comments. Happy planting!