Do Cactus Have Milk In It? What Is It?

Do you have this spiny plant that oozes with white liquid when poked? A lot of people have mistaken them as cacti, but indeed they are not! What are they, and what is that milky substance they shed?

The white milky substance that some cacti-like plants produce when their stem or leaves are cut is called latex. This is composed of toxic chemicals such as alkaloids and terpenoids that can cause damage upon contact or when ingested. Nevertheless, this white milk substance is beneficial for the plant itself.

When a spiny plant gives off a whitish liquid when cut, it indicates that it is not a cactus. It belongs to another succulent group called Euphorbia. Let’s talk about them and discover the white fluid they exude.

What Is Euphorbia?

Euphorbia includes herbaceous and succulent plants. Some euphorbia looks like a cactus due to the spines around its stem. Its distinguishing characteristic is the white liquid that exudes from its stem and leaves when cut.

A euphorbia species with tiny spines protruding from its stem but have no fuzzy areoles.

According to North Carolina State University, the genus Euphorbia has over 2,000 species and is one of the largest flowering perennials. While most Euphorbias have succulent stems and thrive in arid regions, some species have sharp spines around their body resembling a cactus lacking an areole.

The distinct characteristic of Euphorbia is the thick white sap the plant produces when part of its stem is cut or its leaf is punctured. Let’s take a look at the details about their milk-like secretion.

The Latex Liquid From Euphorbia

Euphorbias are latex-producing species, and it often contains toxic chemicals that can cause burning sensations when ingested. Contact with skin and eyes can cause irritations and blistering. However, toxicity levels vary among and within the euphorbia genera.

Latex oozing after the plant’s stem is poked.

Although euphorbias have poisonous characteristics, it is still one of my favorite plant species. Its unique flowers and odd appearance are what draw me to have them among my beloved collections. However, having known them to be toxic, I handle them cautiously.

Chemical Content

Two primary compositions of the white milky substance produced by euphorbias when their leaves are damaged are alkaloids and terpenoids, which are toxic compounds. There are a lot of compounds found in euphorbia white liquid, the latex, but these two are contained in significant amounts. The sticky texture of the fluid is due to the wax and oil it has.

Alkaloids are common among plants and one of the most well-known naturally occurring toxic substances. On the other hand, the biologically active terpenoids in euphorbia latex are hazardous when consumed and can cause vomiting and diarrhea.

Some euphorbia species, such as euphorbia officinarum, have sticky latex because it contains wax and volatile oils. These substances further make the latex more irritating, especially if the skin is exposed to direct sunlight.

Toxicity

Euphorbia white milky-like substance, called latex, is more poisonous to humans than animals. There are many reported cases of skin and eye irritation on individuals with exposure to the milky sap. In large doses, ingestion of latex can cause gastrointestinal inflammation.

The milky fluid is corrosive to the skin, and symptoms include blisters and burning sensations that may develop a few minutes after contact. Accidental eye exposure with latex causes intense inflammation, blurry vision, swelling, and light sensitivity. Although few have reported permanent blindness, this case needs emergency attention as symptoms may become worse

Furthermore, if the latex is ingested, it can cause burning on the affected area, such as lips, mouth, and tongue. If a significant amount of the sap is swallowed, symptoms such as vomiting, abdominal pain, and salivation will be experienced and may get serious if unattended.

Is the while milky substance toxic to pets such as dogs, cats, and other animals?

The liquid latex is toxic to cats, dogs, cattle, and horses. Areas exposed to the poisonous substances may have severe irritation, usually on the surrounding of the mouth. Excessive salivation, weakness, and swelling are symptoms found in pets.

Cows chewing on the stem and leaves can suffer inflammation on the gastrointestinal tract and diarrhea, and rarely hemorrhage. Horses exposed to the sap may experience painful blisters and hair loss on their extremities.

Handling

Due to its toxicity, gardeners should use proper protective gear to avoid exposure to latex. When gardening, it is wise to use gloves and goggles and, as much as possible, prevent the latex from splattering.

In case of skin contact, immediately wash off the white fluid with soap and water. Accident eye exposure should be thoroughly washed with clean water and seek medical attention to ensure proper medication. However, if ingestion happens, bring the victim immediately to the nearest clinic.

How Can Latex Benefit The Plant – Infographic

How Can Latex Benefit The Plant?

The milky white latex is somewhat helpful for the plant itself. Euphorbia produces the sap in ways that will benefit their survival and growth. This sap is therefore favorable from the plant’s point of view.

Here are the functions of the latex to the plant:

1- Defense Against Herbivores

The milky-like substance produced by cut leaves and stems, the latex, is not appealing to predators, and it acts as a deterrent against grazing hungry herbivores that may try to devour the plant.

Euphorbia produces the toxic sap as soon as the predator touches and bites its stem. Since the sap will bleed at the slightest scratch, munchers can feel the burning sensation in just a matter of seconds. However, some animals such as elephants and rhinos can tolerate the toxic effect of latex.

2- Hastens Wound Healing And Sealing

The sap is a great healing and sealing agent of the plant’s wound. When the plant stem is damaged or injured, the latex oozes, and the chemical substances oxidize in the air.

This way, the wax compound in the sap will dry out quickly, sealing and healing the open wound. Through this ability, rerooting of cultivated euphorbia will not take long, making propagation faster.

3- Inhibits Fungus And Bacteria Formation

The ability of euphorbia to produce the liquid latex inhibits the development of fungi and bacteria on its wound. It means that the plant has a lesser chance of infection and diseases.

Studies on the extract of euphorbia sap prove that it is indeed an effective inhibitor of wood decay fungi. The characteristic of the sap to dry out quickly is another excellent way to prevent fungi and bacteria breeding on the wound.

Common Euphorbia Species

Some common euphorbia species are Euphorbia Trigona, Euphorbia Milii, and Euphorbia Tirucalli. These species are often found in xeric landscapes and home gardens. However, gardeners must be careful when cultivating and must be cautious if kids and pets are around.

Here is a brief introduction to these species.

1- The African Milk Tree (Euphorbia Trigona): is a cactus-like euphorbia species with tiny spines and leaves on its edge. It is an upright plant that may grow up to 15 feet like a tree, and the stem exudes a poisonous latex when cut.

2- Christ Plant (Euphorbia Milii) is another succulent plant often mistaken as a cactus due to the significant spikes. It can grow up to 5 feet with broad oval leaves and vibrant flowers. It is also called Crown of Thorns and Jesus Plants because it looks like the thorny crown placed in Jesus’ head.

3- Indian Tree Spurge (Euphorbia Tirducali) is a spineless shrub with pencil-like slender stems and tiny leaves on the tip of the branch. When grown in the ground, it can reach up to 30 feet tall. Its latex has medicinal purposes and is used mainly by African and Indian folks.

Takeaways

  • The succulent plant with spines that exudes a white liquid when its stem or leaf is cut is called euphorbia, and it is different from a cactus.
  • Latex is the term used to call the milky liquid that oozes from the plant. Its chief components are alkaloids and terpenoid esters which are all toxic substances.
  • While latex is poisonous to humans and animals, it is beneficial to the plant itself. It helps the plant heal and seal the wound faster and inhibits fungal and bacterial growth.
  • Although euphorbia latex is poisonous, it is used in some countries as a remedy for some medical problems such as toothache, leprosy, and warts.

Sources

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