The species is commonly known as Arizona nettlespurge or lomboy. These photos were taken of cultivated plants growing in Oahu, Hawaii, USA. Lomboy occurs natively in much of western Mexico (including Baja California) as well as Arizona.
I have spent many winters camped on the beaches of Baja California, and lomboy reminds me of the task of making campfires on these dry, remote beaches. Often, I would collect firewood with travelers who had newly arrived from the Pacific Northwest. These travelers, used to a seemingly endless supply of towering conifers, would hold their axes in limp bemusement, wondering how they would possibly find fuel for their campfire. I would gently prise the axe from their hands, explaining that they wouldn’t need such tools in the desert. Instead, they were to look for small, dead sticks that we would sparingly build our tiny fire with. While looking for these sticks, they were to avoid impaling themselves on a cactus, watch for rattlesnakes, and hope that none of the sticks they chose held a scorpion.
Once the travelers had come to terms with this new camping paradigm, we would set off into the brush. Invariably, one of the campers would soon let out a whoop, excited that they had come upon the motherload of brush–an entire large shrub that had died, perfect for our fire. I would find them pulling against a surprisingly rubbery branch of a Jatropha cinerea plant. Their clothing would be covered in a yellowish sap that would soon dry into blood-coloured stains, which no amount of scrubbing would ever remove.
To the un-trained Cascadian, lomboy shrubs look dead much of the year. Like many of the Baja Californian flora, Jatropha cinerea is drought-deciduous; it can quickly sprout new leaves after a rain then drop them during a period of drought. During Baja California’s dry winters, lomboy is often leafless. The silvery-brown stems appear to forest-dwellers as long-dead, sun-bleached wood. Rather than being tinder-dry and campfire-ready, however, the stems are thick, succulent, and filled with a sap that can be used on minor wounds, abrasions, and chapped lips. The sap is also a powerful dye, if you are into the “blood-stained” look.
The Baja California Plant Field Guide describes Jatropha cinerea as a “widely-spreading, limber-branched bush to small tree, 1-7 m tall, with smooth, grayish to brownish bark. The slightly three-lobed to entire, grayish green leaves are 4-8 cm wide and nearly as long”. Today’s photo shows clusters of male flowers, which are found in compact clusters. The female flowers are solitary and, when fertilized, produce 2 or 3-lobed fruits in summer to early autumn.