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Post details: Euphorbia Tirucalli

Euphorbia Tirucalli

When I was a kid, a Zoo was all the rave. That was the place to be: an emporium full of furry critters, muscular serpents, colossal hippos and exotic sounding birds. In those years, a botanical garden seemed like a second hand farm where they merely grew rare plants, savannah grasses and trees with non-traditional foliage, you know, something to feed the hungry herbivores at a Zoo.

Motion is overhyped when you are a kid. So being firmly rooted in soil can hardly hold a candle to all the trotting, jumping, slinking, scurrying, galloping, swimming, crawling, loping, anteloping, darting, flying and all that goes on behind a Zoo's walls. Even later, when I learned that the two places served two distinct biological communities, I still viewed botanical gardens as quaint sanctuaries, suitable only for compulsive gardeners, specialty farmers, horticulturalists, rose stalkers and, in general, people who didn't get animals.

But I wised up a bit since then and these days I acknowledge that flora can be as intriguing as fauna. And to prove the point, I convinced a friend of mine yesterday to go and visit the United States Botanical Garden - a small complex of buildings nestled at the feet of the mighty Capitol. The winter was still in session, so on our way there we had to traverse the snow covered National Mall glazed with a slippery coat of ice. But once we entered the maze of mostly warm climactic zones, we could laugh at the snow squall outside through the glasses of several interconnected greenhouses.

As we floundered through their many closets, the botanical labyrinth changed its verdant attire several times: from a frilly samba skirt of the fern habitat, to rough aprons of the cactusarium, to the evening gown of the orchid pavilion, in which beauty rerendered itself in a lavish display of meticulously wrought jewelry. We discovered a starched tie of the Devil's Tongue and a prickly plant that resembled a nest of rabid socks. We traversed a suspended catwalk winding around the canopy of a rainforest like a halter top. Still, my favorite article of nature's clothing was a relatively inconspicuous cactus-like shrub labeled as a Milk Bush (Euphorbia Tirucalli).

It is a very peculiar plant. It doesn't have any leaves, just a dense array of thick and succulent twigs. The pulp of the bush produces a poisonous viscous liquid that has been used to treat cancers. The funny part is that - according to the Nobel Prize winning American chemist Melvin Calvin - this "milk" can also be converted to gasoline. The Brazilian petroleum company Petrobras has been experimenting with it since the 1980s. Can you imagine - growing gas on trees? Take that OPEC!

I just hope that when the Democratic House looks for inspiration and fresh new perspective on the energy crisis, they won't take the name of this plant as an imperative. Despite the Capitol being just a stone's throw away from the garden, there are other respectable authorities that can be milked for ideas. In the meantime, we should heed the lesson that botany teaches us: if you look for oil too hard, sometimes all you get in return is a small puddle of poisonous latex.



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