Spurge family (Euphorbiaceae)
Description: This native perennial plant is unbranched, ranging from ½-3' tall. The central stem is light green and without hairs. The hairless leaves are about 2-3" long and ½" wide, broadly linear or narrowly oblong, and have smooth margins. They occur along the stem alternately, except at the apex of the plant, where they occur in whorls of three beneath the panicle of flowers.
Each flowerhead consists of a yellow cyathium of very small yellow flowers, which is surrounded by five petal-like structures (modified leaves) that are white, with a hint of green towards the center. These flowerheads are numerous, each one a little less than ½" across, producing an effect that is similar to the more familiar Gypsophilum spp. (Baby's Breath) of horticulture. Flowering Spurge blooms during mid- to late summer for about 1½ months. During this time, the entire plant often leans over because of the weight of the inflorescence. There is no floral scent. Each flower produces 3 oval, finely pitted brown seeds, which are ejected outward mechanically. The root system consists of a stout taproot that becomes woody with maturity, and it produces short rhizomes. Another characteristic of this plant, like other spurges, is the presence of a white latex in the stem and leaves, which has toxic properties that can irritate the digestive tract or skin.
Cultivation: The preference is full sun, and mesic to dry conditions. This plant will tolerate almost any kind of soil, including that which is sandy, rocky, loamy, or clayish. Poor soil is actually preferred because of the reduction in competition from other plants. Drought resistance is quite high, and disease is rarely a problem when the soil is well-drained. This plant can spread vegetatively, but is not particularly aggressive. It is rather slow-growing, but easy to manage.
Range & Habitat: This common plant occurs in every county of Illinois (see Distribution Map). It can be found in an exceptional variety of habitats, including mesic to dry black soil prairies, sand prairies, gravel prairies, and dolomite prairies; openings in upland forests and sandy forests; mesic to dry savannas, sandy savannas, and barrens; various kinds of hill prairies, with the soil consisting of loess, glacial drift, sand, or gravel; limestone glades and bluffs; sand dunes; areas along railroads and roads; and agricultural land in various stages of abandonment and neglect. Flowering Spurge can be found in either disturbed areas or high quality habitats.
Faunal Associations: The flowers attract wasps, flies, and short-tongued bees primarily. Among the wasps are such visitors as Mud Daubers, Paper wasps, Spider wasps, Cuckoo wasps, Tiphiid wasps, Crabronine wasps, and Ichneumonid wasps. Fly visitors include Syrphid flies, bee flies, Tachinid flies, flesh flies, blow flies, and Muscid flies. Ants may help to distribute some of the seeds because of a small edible appendage at their base. The seeds are popular with some species of birds, including the Wild Turkey, Greater Prairie Chicken, Bobwhite, Mourning Dove, and Horned Lark. This plant is rarely eaten by mammalian herbivores because of the toxic white latex in the leaves and stems, which can kill cattle.
Photographic Location: A remnant prairie along an abandoned railroad in Urbana, Illinois.
Comments: Usually the foliage is devoid of hairs, but there is a subspecies with fine white hairs. The foliage becomes an attractive red color during the cooler weather of fall. For a member of the Spurge family, this species is rather showy.