Purge the Spurge

Myrtle spurge, an escaped ornamental, has become a plague along the Front Range, including many areas of Lyons. Pretty to look at, this perennial not only crowds out native vegetation, but it also has a sap that is very irritating to skin and is toxic if ingested. If it gets into your eyes, you best head to the nearest hospital, according to Wildlands Restoration Volunteers (WRV) coordinator, Morgan Crowley.

The WRV held a myrtle spurge removal workday in the open space at the east end of Stickney Avenue here in Lyons. About forty volunteers from many parts of the state worked all day on Saturday, March 23, and filled more than sixty giant trash bags with spurge in addition to a huge mass that was

pulled and left on a private property. Three or four local residents joined them to eradicate the A-list noxious weed from the hilly areas. The group was armed with shovels and “hori-hori” knives, as well as long sturdy rubber gloves and goggles for those who didn’t wear glasses in an effort to prevent the latex sap (a milky sap) from splashing in eyes.

The Volunteers had excellent weather, cloudy and in the high 40s to low 50s. It had rained about half an inch the night before, and with the two inches of rain ten days earlier, the ground was fairly soft, which enabled the workers to get most of the roots out. Because the plant produces flowers, and then seeds in the early spring, this noxious weed is best dealt with now, in March or April. Myrtle spurge stays green all winter, so it is easy to recognize already in early Spring.

Related to the Christmas Poinsettia, which is also toxic if its leaves are eaten, myrtle spurge is on the A-list and must be removed and thrown in the trash. It should not be composted. If you do a Google search for this plant, also called “donkey tail” or “creeping spurge,” you will find it is still being sold  (not Colorado) as an ornamental plant.

The myrtle spurge produces seeds that may be viable for up to eight years. According to the Colorado Department of Agriculture, the plant can propel seeds as far as fifteen feet. New stems emerge in early spring and the plants can grow up to 8 to 12 inches high and 12 to 18 inches in width. The leaves are blue-green, fleshy and alternate in a vortex pattern, making it understandable how it became an attractive perennial for gardeners, especially for rock gardens and xeriscapes.

Dalmatian toadflax has similar looking leaves (opposing heart shaped, waxy with a bluish color) and it often grows near spurge. However, the toadflax, which is a B-list weed, sends its flower stalk upwards with yellow snapdragon like flowers. Last year’s shriveled standing stem of the toadflax, and the lack of latex sap if you break off an end will confirm a toadflax rather than myrtle. A botany professor from Colorado University, who was a crew leader at the spurge purge, pointed out that the toadflax often has an insect enemy, a weevil, that will weaken and kill the plant so removal of this B-list weed is not necessary. , Colorado and Oregon have statewide bans on spurge, and landowners in Colorado are required to remove it or face uncertain legal penalties. Salt Lake County in Utah is also on the “no spurge” list.

The control of spurge is primarily mechanical. The best method, since it does not spread by rhizomes, is to remove it by digging before flowers and seeds form. If Mother Nature hasn’t provided any natural moisture to loosen the plants from the soil, water the plant with a good soaking before attempting to remove it so you get as much as the taproot as possible. There doesn’t appear to be a biological control that would attack the spurge, and the Colorado State University has chemical recommendations but they are not fit for a family newspaper to print., And as far as using the parts of the plant for tea or medicinal purposes, the word from the experts is “DON’T!”,

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