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SOCAL STYLE / Gardens

Burning Bush

A South African Succulent Catches Firerash

June 28, 1998|SUSAN HEEGER

Brash, bristling and bright orange, the succulent known as 'Sticks on Fire' has been drawing raves at the new Getty Center, where artist Robert Irwin installed it in the Central Garden. But Irwin's source for the plant, Gary Hammer, owner of Desert to Jungle Nursery in Montebello, has sold it quietly for years, ever since he spotted it in a nursery in South Africa and brought two small snippets home. From these, in the late '80s, he propagated plants, pinched the plants and started more, watching branches grow a foot or two a year. "People really go wild for this," he says. "They've never seen such vibrant color."

A nursery-cultivated mutation of the subtler pencilbush (Euphorbia tirucalli), commonly used in South Africa for hedges, 'Sticks on Fire' flames brightest in winter, spring and fall. In summer, when actively growing, it pales to yellow, though less so if watered sparingly and situated in full sun. It isn't picky about soil, and the merest slip of it will root in the ground or in a pot. Feed it minimally if it's potted; otherwise, not at all. Plant it from summer to early fall, but handle it gently. Like pencilbush, it has a caustic sap that burns the eyes and causes sensitive skin to swell. And on hot days, Hammer warns, when the plant is broken, the sap turns vaporous and may burn the mucous membranes of the throat.

Such threats notwithstanding, Hammer reports that he can hardly meet the demand for 'Sticks on Fire,' available now through several other local nurseries. "It's a wonderfully gaudy thing," he says, "and it looks great with other showy plants--for example, a crowd of pink echeverias around its base, or blue senecios, black aeoniums or white cascading crassulas." In fact, amid aqueous, silver-blue tones, fiery 'Sticks' looks coral-like and almost cool.

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'Sticks on Fire' is available at Desert to Jungle Nursery in Montebello, (213) 722-3976, and can be special-ordered from Hortus in Pasadena, (626) 792- 8255, and Sperling Nursery in Calabasas, (818) 591-9111.

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