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Native Wildflowers of the North Dakota Grasslands

JPG -- species photo

Spoonleaf Spurge (Euphorbia spathulata)

An uncommon plant in North Dakota, spoonleaf spurge has been collected in only five of our 53 counties, four west of the Missouri River and Cass County. Elsewhere, the species ranges from Minnesota to Washington, south to Alabama and Mexico at elevations up to 6,000 ft.

Spoonleaf spurge is a smooth, branched annual up to 20 inches tall. The alternate leaves are slightly over an inch long, spoon-shaped or bluntly spear-shaped, and finely toothed on the edge of the upper half. Flowers are greatly reduced in the spurges and borne in a glandular, cup-like structure called a cyathium. In spoonleaf spurge, the greenish-yellow cyathium bears three female and 5-8 male flowers. These flowers have no petals or sepals. At maturity, capsules about 1/16-inch long contain tiny brown seeds.

Look for spoonleaf spurge in May or June in sandy native prairie. There are few data on the effects of livestock grazing on this species, but it is well known that cattle avoid most spurges because of their acrid, milky juice. Juices from some spurges cause dermatitis in humans. Worldwide, Euphorbias are economically important plants used for medicines, rubbers, glues, paints, and other products. Some relatives, like leafy spurge (E. esula), have become highly noxious weeds when introduced to other countries.

The spurge family (Euphorbiaceae) and the genus Euphorbia were named in honor of Euphorbus, physician to King Juba of Numidia. This plant family has about 7,000 species worldwide, including the economically important rubber trees, cassava, and tapioca. The specific epithet spathulata refers to the spatula-shaped leaves. Spoonleaf spurge was first described for science by the eminent French natural historian Jean Baptiste Antoine Pierre Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck (1744-1829). Lamarck propounded an early theory of evolution and was the first to use dichotomous keys in natural history.

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