In tropical Africa and other parts of the world, the African milk tree is used as a source for clothing fiber, building material, medicinal treatments, and food. It’s not actually a beech or cotton tree but it produces ornamental beige blooms. It is a medium-sized tree, reaching 50 feet and has an umbrella-shaped crown.
The African milk tree belongs to the Euphorbiaceae family, where over 2300 species are native to tropical places in the Americas, Africa, Australia, and Asia. It grows well in sandy soil and although it’s a tropical plant it flourishes in light shade. Giving high fertilizer, moist soil and full sun is also recommended.
The African milk tree is a xerophyte meaning it can survive drought conditions. It has short trunked branches with long green leaves that fan out and grow up to 2 meters long, the African milk tree produces brown fruit that is called a ‘gourd’
The African milk tree also has a large spongy trunk, it can hold 16.4 liters of water per 100 grams of the trunk which can last the plant as long as 15 days including its root system, African tribes use the plant to store water and food for lean times. The African milk tree can live up to 400 years old and it grows in mostly dry areas of Africa, their roots go deep down into the ground to find water which kills other plants from growing near it.
Why is it called African milk tree? – Origin
The name African milk tree is a very descriptive name for this plant. The African milk tree is a native of Africa and it produces “milk” which looks like milk each time the trunk or stems are injured or cut when it comes in contact with air. This process has earned the plant its scientific name ” African tree milk, African locust tree or African latex milky tree”.
How to propagate the African milk tree
The African milk tree is propagated most easily from seed. It takes approximately 6 months for the seeds to germinate and will need a warm, humid environment to do so. Seeds can be sown directly into potting soil or paper towel and kept moist but not wet at all times. Seedlings should be pruned regularly as they grow to help encourage bushiness.
Once the African milk tree has reached approximately 40cm in height, it is mature enough for transplanting into a pot or garden bed. Additionally, the plant can be propagated if one wishes to grow it indoors from cuttings of leaves.
Cuttings should be severed only once the African milk tree is mature and they should be kept in a warm, humid environment with plenty of sunlight. The African milk tree can also grow from rhizomes, which are propagated by separating them, washing them very well to remove all traces of the ‘white’ pulp/sap, and then planting into moist potting soil or paper towel. It should be noted that African milk trees will readily root in water if desired.
African milk trees are ideal for low-maintenance gardens. They should be fertilized with a high-quality liquid fertilizer once every 3 weeks, or if the African milk tree is indoors, it can be fertilized weekly.
General care information
The African milk tree is an easy house plant to care for, requiring a minimum amount of work to ensure that it looks healthy and attractive.
Low light tolerance can be maintained by pruning the plant back to two feet. African milk trees are not reliably hardy in climates with temperatures below 40°F and may require protection depending on the cold tolerance of a particular cultivar planted in a given area. It is recommended that this tree be planted away from sidewalks or patios where it could scratch people who walk by.
The African milk tree is a tropical plant best grown in partial shade. The leaves of the African milk tree are thick and leathery, almost resembling those of an oak tree. It has large pink flowers that bloom at night and last for several days before wilting.
The African milk tree grows best in a well-drained potting mix. A light, commercial soil mixtures such as potting soil with perlite or horticultural sand are added for drainage.
The African milk tree grows best in a soil mix consisting of 1 part peat moss, 1 part sand, and 1 part loam or humus; however, you should be careful not to overwater the plant when using soil from your garden. A container mix consisting of 1 part potting soil with perlite or horticultural sand added for drainage is a good choice because it offers excellent drainage and aeration while providing enough nutrients for satisfactory growth.
Water the plant thoroughly, then allow the soil to dry out before watering again. The plant should be watered enough so that excess water runs out of the bottom of the pot. If it is not already present in your potting soil, consider adding a granular fertilizer with low nitrogen; low phosphorus, and high potassium content once every other month.
Fertilize the plant using a time-released granular fertilizer or one with low-moderate nitrogen, low phosphorus, and high potassium content. A 10-10-10 fertilizer is a good choice. Apply about 1 teaspoon into the soil around the base of the plant every 6 to 8 weeks. The African milk tree will show a significant decrease in the number of leaves or stop leaf production entirely when it is lacking fertilizer.
This plant grows best at moderately warm temperatures. The plant will be damaged if exposed to frost. Placing the pot in a location that receives dappled sunlight or filtered sunlight through a curtain can help prevent leaves from burning when the temperature rises above 85°F (29°C). Although there are some reports of this species tolerating temperatures as low as 40°F (4.5°C), rapid leaf loss will occur if the plant is exposed to cold temperatures for extended periods of time.
The African milk tree requires high humidity. You can achieve this by placing the pot in a tray filled with small pebbles and water. The pot should be placed so that the top of it is at least 2 inches (5 cm) above the surface of the water. This method will also help to increase the ambient moisture around your plant and provide consistent moisture.
Another way to increase humidity is by placing the pot on a tray filled with moistened pebbles or vermiculite. Placing the plant near a humidifier, in front of an open window, or under an air conditioner that produces a fine mist can also help increase the ambient moisture around your plant and provide consistent moisture.
Pruning is not necessary unless you are trying to shape your plant. Regular pruning can also be used to stimulate new branches and keep the plant full and bushy. To perform any type of pruning, use sharp, sterile shears or scissors to cut through the leaves and small side branches leading away from a stem.
The material should be removed from the plant rather than pulled off in order to prevent damage caused by tearing. Remove any large branches that appear dead; a process known as defoliation. Do not prune more than 25 percent of a stem all at once, and do not remove more than one-third of the green tissue on each branch.
The African milk tree does not need to be repotted frequently. Repot the plant every three years using a pot that is 2 inches (5 cm) larger than its current container. Use a container with a drainage hole so that the soil will not become too moist in an enclosed area.
The African milk tree is tropical and cannot tolerate cold temperatures. It will not survive outdoors in areas where the temperature drops below 50°F (10°C). Therefore, it should be treated as an indoor plant unless its location can be modified to support year-round growth outside of a tropical environment.
The African milk tree is moderately tolerant of salinity. It will tolerate up to 4 dS/m (decisivu sievert/meter ), but growth will be restricted in areas with greater than 10 dS/m of salt. The most common cause of high salinity is hard water that has been treated for mineral content and softened using sodium.
The African milk tree is a great indoor plant because it tolerates low light levels and does not require high humidity. Its round, compact shape makes it ideal for growing in containers placed on tabletops or near windows.
The small size of the plant also makes it suitable for use as a focal point amid larger houseplants. However, the average size of the plant makes it unsuitable for use as a floor plant or grouping in large numbers. The milky latex that can ooze from the stems and leaves is an irritant to both skin and mucous membranes.
All parts of the African milk tree are toxic. The leaves and bark contain a compound known as cardiac glycosides that can cause gastrointestinal distress, respiratory failure, and even death when ingested by humans. Some species of animals, such as cattle, goats, and horses, are susceptible to mild intoxication if they consume fresh or dry plant material. However, all parts of the plant should be considered toxic and kept away from pets, children, livestock, and other mammals.
Pests and diseases
The most common insect pest of the African milk tree is a type of mealybug. Mealybugs are small, slow-moving insects that congregate in large numbers on the stem or leaves to feed on sap from wounds or to lay eggs. Small cottony masses can be found on the stems or leaves, and the plant may appear wilted because of the feeding activity.
The mealybugs themselves are not harmful, but they secrete a sticky material that prevents water from penetrating the plant, which can lead to wilting and death. The best way to avoid this type of infestation is to purchase an African milk tree that has been treated with insecticide.
The African milk tree is a hardy indoor plant that produces beautiful flowers and unique fruit. The small size of the tree makes it well-suited for growing in containers placed on tabletops or near windows, but its toxicity precludes using the plant around humans and animals.