The African milk tree plant is a unique-looking succulent that’s easygoing on the care front. Learn all about how much light it needs, when you need to water it, how to propagate it, and why it just might bring you good luck:)
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 actually started as a propagation from my dad’s huge plant. The plant was showing signs of decline in its old age (several decades old), so I took a few cuttings to make sure it could live on.
I’ll touch on that propagation process in this post. 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!
Table of contents
- African milk tree background
- Is African milk tree a succulent?
- How much light does an African milk tree need?
- Can African milk tree take full sun?
- How often should I water my African milk tree?
- How do I know when my plant needs water?
- What is the best soil?
- How cold can euphorbia tolerate?
- Can African milk tree survive winter?
- Does this plant need 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?
- Can I cut the top off my African milk tree?
- How do you propagate an African milk tree?
- Other FAQs about the plant
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 to 4 feet tall. If left to grow outside, however, this hearty plant can reach up to 8 feet high.
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.
This plant is very popular because it stays lush and green throughout its whole growing season in arid climates. 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.
Is African milk tree a succulent?
Yes, it is! I often see this plant referred to as a cactus. And while it does share some characteristics with the cactus—thick, sturdy, upright stems with prominent pricklers all up and down the sides—it isn’t a cactus. The African milk tree is a succulent.
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 species. 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 African milk tree happy and healthy. The more bright light you give the plant, the faster it will grow.
When I first planted my propagations and established the plant, I had it sitting under a grow light in our bedroom. There was one window to the side that got morning sun. This seemed to be more than enough for the plant—it grew great! And it lived there until we moved.
When we moved, I had the plant in a much lower light area while we built the sunroom. The new house got a lot less light. And the fact that we moved when it was still winter didn’t help! I noticed that the plant slowed its growth, but it still grew. I saw no other signs of suffering.
Can African milk tree take full sun?
Many times in my posts, 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 explore with growth.
If you do put it in direct sunlight, you may need to water it a little more often to keep it from completely drying out. Some people like to move their African milk tree outside for part of the year, too. I will be doing that this summer at the new house, and I’m excited to see how the plant responds!
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 the top half of your plant’s soil dry out before watering the plant again.
To be honest, I generally neglect this plant and 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.
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.
How do I know when my plant needs water?
Once you get to know your plant, you’ll get into a bit of a seasonal routine. They have shallow root systems, so my plant is still in quite a small pot. I can pick it up and tell if the soil is dry by this point—but I’ve been getting to know my plant for many years.
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.
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.
How cold can euphorbia tolerate?
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!
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.
Can African milk tree survive winter?
No—at least not where I live. I live in USDA zone 7. 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 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!
Does this plant need humidity?
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 for this arid-loving plant.
That is another reason I’ll want to keep mine in the sun outdoors. It’s very humid where I live, and I’ll be relying on the spring and summer sun to zap extra moisture from the stems and leaves.
How often should I repot an African milk tree?
It’s a fast grower. 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.
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 post.
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 (that I’m kicking myself for not getting a picture of) was about as tall as he is at about 6 feet tall.
I’d say that my plant has about doubled in size over the last two years. I’m looking forward to seeing if the growth jump starts when I put it outside for the summer. Keep in mind that these have shallow root systems and can be quite top-heavy, too—so try to choose a heavy pot for the plant.
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.
Can I cut the top off my African milk tree?
Yes, you can. If it is getting too tall or too top heavy, pruning off the top of the tree is a great way to control its size and encourage branching. The branching can also help to stabilize the tree. It will likely grow several branches, hopefully at somewhat even points around the stem to keep things balanced.
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.
The cuttings can be taken 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 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 then 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 back 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? 🙂
Also of note–I don’t recommend propagating this one in water. It propagates so easily in soil, and it isn’t worth risking the potential rot in water.
Want more propagation? See my post about How to Propagate Succulents From Leaves and Cuttings, my tips about How to Propagate String of Pearls, and my guide for Propagating Prickly Pear Cactus
Other FAQs about the plant
Here are a few other things I want to note—or underscore—about the African milk tree. Hopefully this info helps you grow a thriving plant!
Why is my Euphorbia dropping leaves?
Leaf drop is a normal part of the African milk tree’s aging process. You’ll notice that the older leaves will naturally drop as the plant gets taller. If this is what your plant is doing, it isn’t a big deal.
Why are the leaves on my African milk tree turning yellow?
However, if many leaves on your plant are yellowing and falling off, this could be a sign of stress. Specifically, you may be underwatering the plant. Make sure you aren’t going too long between watering sessions, and give it a good drink.
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.
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.
Can I put my African milk tree outside?
Absolutely, yes! It’s a warmth lover and sun worshipper. Just make sure to acclimate the plant slowly to direct sun outdoors to avoid stressing the plant. Also make sure you take it back inside when temperatures begin dipping consistently down into the low 50s at night.