The plant genus Breynia includes around 35 species of evergreen shrubs. The most popular of which are the colourful variegated forms as the tiny greenish flowers are virtually invisible. The oval leaves form in flattened, frond-like sprays on pink or red 'zig-zag' stems and depending on the species, can be all green or mottled with white, pink or red. Common names include Snow on the Mountain, Snow bush and Ice-cream bush.
The genus is a member of the Euphorbiaceae (spurge) family, although it is sometimes listed as belonging to the Phyllanthaceae family, and most species are native to the Pacific Islands. Breynia is a tropical plant and as such will not withstand frosts, however in a temperate climate it can be grown as hedging, as ground cover or as a container plant. It can tolerate a variety of soils but prefers a moist, free-draining soil rich in organic matter. It needs a situation in full sun with some dappled shade during the hottest part of the day. Once mature it can reach around one to two metres tall with gently weeping branches. Pinching out the growing tips will help to promote branching and keep it compact. Propagation is by softwood cuttings taken in the summer.
The genus Breynia was named after German Jacob Breyne a 17th century merchant, and his son Johann Philipp Breyne who was a botanist and a physician.
The species B. oblongifolia does not have mottled foliage but it does have attractive pinkish-red berries which gradually turn black as they ripen. It is commonly called the Coffee bush and is native to Australia so maybe slightly hardier than some of the other species.
In Indian traditional medicine, the dried leaves of B. vitis-idaea are smoked like tobacco to relieve tonsillitis and extracts of the leaves are given as a postpartum remedy and to treat skin diseases. The bark is used to treat rheumatism and to stop bleeding. B patens is also used for treating conjunctivitis, blood diseases, bowel disorders, bites and stings and skin diseases.