Friday, June 22, 2012

Howdy Neighbor! Can we talk about myrtle spurge? by Ashley McNamara

I was out walking in my Coal Creek Canyon neighborhood recently when I spotted something that made my blood run cold. There, in a garden bed in front of one of my neighbors' houses, was a rambling plant with blue-green leaves. I'd never seen it in the Canyon before, but I was quite familiar with it since I used to live in a house that backed up to South Table Mountain in Golden. I can recall how the stuff blanketed the hillsides there, and how even the most ravenous deer refused to touch it. Yep, it was time to talk with my neighbor about myrtle spurge.

Myrtle spurge in bloom
I am pretty non-confrontational by nature, particularly with people I have only exchanged a bit of small talk with. As an apprentice Colorado Master Gardener, I feel I should talk  to my neighbors about their noxious weeds, in particular ones that are on the A and B eradication list. The sight of myrtle spurge alarmed me because, like I said, I've never seen it growing in the Canyon before. Still, it was going to be tough to get up the nerve. Just exactly what was I going to say?
Myrtle spurge (aka Euphorbia myrsinites) is an Eurasian native with no natural controls in North America and a couple of nasty habits. The plants produce exploding seedpods and exude a thick, milky sap that can cause some people to go into anaphylactic shock when they touch it. They were first imported to this country as a xeriscape ornamental. They tolerate heat, drought, cold, hungry foragers and rocky alkaline soil, meaning that they are right at home in Colorado. In my book, they are an exceptionally nasty weed. Don't get me wrong, there are some great Euphorbs, from baseball plant (Euphorbia obesa) to Crown-of-Thorns (Euphorbia milii) to everybody's holiday favorite, Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). The genus is tremendously varied, but its member species have in common cup-shaped flowers that feature prominent bracts instead of true petals, and that same poisonous white sap.

So with a steely resolve, my trusty shovel and a pair of thick gloves, I hoofed it back up the hill to my neighbor's house. I'm a big believer in choosing my battles, so I decided not to say anything about the Canada thistle, wooly mullein, and scentless chamomile I walked past on my way up her driveway (I could broach the topic with her another time, and all three of these are common in the Canyon anyway). A bed of spectacular columbine and some healthy-looking tomato plants met my eyes as I walked through her gate, demonstrating that she wasn't one of those people who took no interest in gardening (even if weed control wasn't really her thing).  Several people were milling about her living room and they informed her of my arrival. As soon as I saw her, I thought she looked tired. Our conversation went something like this:

"Can I help you?"
"Um, sorry to bother you. I couldn't help but notice that you have a noxious weed growing on your property. Can I point it out to you?"
"I thought I got rid of all that purple flowered stuff. Somebody from the county stopped by and told me I had to spray it last year"(presumably she was referring to purple loosestrife).
"Actually, it's this blue-green plant growing over here". We walked over to where I had spotted the myrtle spurge earlier. Now that I was standing on her property, I could see that there were not only a few large plants but dozens of seedlings lurking in the shadows of the cheat grass.
"Yeah, I noticed that. I thought it was kinda pretty."
I agreed that this was true, and that you could even buy seeds for it through Martha Stewart Living. But when I told her that the state listed it as a noxious weed and that it would take over if it were allowed to go to seed, she admitted that it had to go. Then she added,
"I don't feel like I can take care of it myself this week. My mom just died on Tuesday and I have a lot to do right now."
"Oh no, I'm sorry to hear that. . ." She clearly had too much on her plate to worry about digging up the myrtle spurge before it went to seed. When I offered to dig it up for her, she gladly accepted and gave me a bag to put the dismembered weeds in.

The hard part was done. Now all I had to do was dig up and dispose of about eighty prickly, toxic, stubborn plants.

For more information, pictures of myrtle spurge, and distribution maps, click on the following link: