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Euphorbia caput-medusae (Medusa's head)

Medusa's head is so named because of its numerous snake-like stems.
Fruits of Euphorbia caput-medusae

Fruits of Euphorbia caput-medusae (Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy)

Species information

Scientific name: 

Euphorbia caput-medusae L.

Common name: 

Medusa's head

Conservation status: 

Least Concern (LC) according to the Red List of South African Plants 2009, following IUCN Red List criteria.


Sandy flats and rocky coastal outcrops.

Key Uses: 


Known hazards: 

The milky sap (latex) is a skin and eye irritant.


Genus: Euphorbia

About this species

There are more than 2,000 species of Euphorbia (spurge). They range widely in habit from trees and succulent perennials to small annual herbs. They all produce caustic milky sap.

Euphorbia caput-medusae was introduced from South Africa to the Netherlands around 1700 and described by Linnaeus in his Species Plantarum (1753). Linnaeus had previously worked for George Clifford, a banker and one of the directors of the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, VOC). Clifford owned a garden (Hartekamp) near Haarlem, in which he grew a great variety of plants, many sent to him by VOC employees in the Cape. As a result, Linnaeus had an unrivalled opportunity to get to know some of the South African plants coming into Europe at that time, and his work in cataloguing Clifford’s plants, published in 1737 as Hortus Cliffortianus, was to stand him in good stead when he came to organise his later work.

The Latin (and common) name ‘head of Medusa’ describes the plant well, and it is likely that this was among the species grown in Clifford’s garden.


Refer to the World Checklist for full list of synonyms.


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