Many Plants Contain White, Milky Latex. What is Its Purpose?

by | Jan 4, 2023 | 0 comments

Did you know that many plants contain a white, milky latex substance? What is it? What is its purpose?

Let’s talk more about this and find out which houseplants contain latex and what it does for the plant.

latex on a poinsettia leaf
A drop of latex on a broken poinsettia leaf

What is latex in plants?

According to the encylopedia Britannica:

latex, colloidal suspension, either the milky white liquid emulsion found in the cells of certain flowering plants such as the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) or any of various manufactured water emulsions consisting of synthetic rubber or plastic.”

So latex is contained in some plants and it is a milky white substance.

Latex is in the laticifers

What the heck is a laticifer? It is a specialized cell that contains the latex. When a laticifer is cut or bruised, the white substance will flow from the plant.

When I worked at a plant care company, we pruned and trimmed ficus trees. We laid a tarp under the plant so that the latex wouldn’t drip on the floor or furniture. If the cut was large, we would use a small piece of paper towel over the cut, stopping the flow. Once it was healed, we removed it.

What is the purpose of latex in plants?

Good for the plant

It has been found that latex helps deter hungry animals from eating the plant, and helps keep pathogens at bay. The latex is released when the plant is damaged. So, if a hungry animal decides to snack on the plant, it will think twice when the latex contacts its mouth parts. It isn’t pleasant.

I can attest to the fact that latex can cause unpleasant sensations in your mouth after I entered my Euphorbia lactea ‘Cristata’ into a judged plant show. I bumped it and the latex came out so I wiped it off with my finger, licked it and wiped the next drip off the plant. It wasn’t horrible, but my tongue and throat were burning.

Latex is a barrier against pathogens. When the plant is damaged, the latex seals the wounds keeping disease pathogens out. Pretty cool, huh?

Latex for the world

Rubber manufacturers use latex from the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) native to Brazil. Though natural latex isn’t used in its pure form for tires anymore, small amounts are used with man-made materials.

Poinsettia 'Tapestry" or vareigated poinsettia
Poinsettia ‘Tapestry’, a vareiegated form

Are plants with latex deadly?

The poinsettia above is a good example of a plant containing latex. Many believe poinsettias are poisonous to pets and children, but they are not. Though they can cause irritation and burning mouths or throats to the animal or child, they won’t die. The euphorbias below are also full of latex and it appears when damage occurs to the stems or leaves.

There are people allergic to latex and it is surprising how many things contain latex. My friend had special furniture made and had no carpet in her home. She also loved to crochet, but could only use cotton yarn. So though it isn’t poisonous to most, as an allergen it causes monumental problems.

I hope that cleared up the questions about latex. Plants have latex for a reason, as it is helpful to them. It revolutionalized the world when used for tire manufacturing. Latex in plants has a fascinating history.

Have a great week, plant friends!

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