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Spurge is the common name given to plants of the genus Euphorbia, usually found in the tropical regions of Africa and the Americas. The name is derived from the Middle English/Old French word espurge, meaning “to purge” due to its medicinal use as a purgative. These plants are annual or perennial herbs, trees, or shrubs. There are 2160 species of this plant.
These plants have a milky sap, called latex, which is sometimes poisonous. The latex of leafy spurge is a skin irritant that can cause severe irritation, blotching, blistering, and swelling in both people and animals. If the latex comes into contact with the mucous membranes, such as the eyes, it can be extremely painful and caution is advised when dealing with latex-producing spurges. Immediate action should be taken by quickly flushing the eyes or skin with clean water.
Leafy spurge is a noxious weed found in the Western United States. It is an aggressive, deep-rooted perennial that will quickly colonize and push out native plants. Grazing animals typically avoid it, as it is unpalatable and can be toxic in some animals. This creates an issue when the plant spreads into new areas because the livestock will then focus their grazing on more desirable plants, leaving it to completely take over.
Spotted spurge is one of the more infamous species this plant. Found in both the Eastern and Western areas of the United States, this plant infests citrus, turf, and ornamental bed crops. Californian farmers struggle with spotted spurge as well as ground and creeping spurge. It takes over by using up the native plant’s water and nutrients and by growing over other plants so that its toxins will prevent the growth of the plants beneath it.
Not all spurges are bad. There are several species that are used in gardens, including the popular poinsettia plant. Japanese spurge is an attractive groundcover and is commonly used to cover banks and along shady walkways. Alternatively, it can be planted in pots and put in shady areas on porches.
The American version of Japanese spurge is Allegheny spurge. It’s a well-behaved groundcover often used in flowerbeds with ferns and wildflowers. The varied pattern of its foliage creates a unique look that complements a variety of flowers and plants. It remains lush throughout the year, and in the springtime, this groundcover produces its own whitish-pink blossoms.