Leatherstem grows as loosely clustered individual stems that grow straight up from the ground, curving downwards in a gentle arch. It is a member of the Euphorbia family, a relationship which is easily seen in the following photograph. The dark reddish-brown plant in the foreground is the Leatherstem. The pale bluish-green one behind is a Candelilla, also a member of the Euphorbia family.
You’re not likely to notice this plant unless growing conditions are good. At these times, the stems turn a bright red and the leaves a bright green. If you handle one of the stems when the plant is well hydrated, you will quickly understand how it gets its name, for the stems are so supple that they can be tied into loose knots without breaking.
The flowers are small, pale and urceolate, or urn-shaped. Though small, they will certainly catch your eye as you walk past.
The fruits, on the other hand are surprisingly large, sometimes growing to the size of small grapes.
The fleshy stems and roots contain tannins which turn bright red upon exposure to the air. It is from the reddened sap that the Spanish name “Sangre de Drago” arises. The sap is highly astringent and topically anti-inflammatory. Native tribes sharpened stems or roots to massage their gums. Chewing the plant gives relief for mouth sores and the juice was applied to hemorrhoides, and to scrapes, cuts, and skin rashes to soothe irritation and stop bleeding. Jatropha dioica is known to have been used since Aztec times in Mexico; its use fixative or “amacizador” of teeth has been confirmed in recent research.
This plant is easily cultivated as long as it is given full sun, thorough drainage, and not too much water. It is, however, a succulent and can be hurt during a hard freeze or severe drought. However, its large root system usually allows it to make a good recovery after being damaged.