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Cypress Spurge Euphorbia cyparissias


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Cypress Spurge - closeup
credit: Guido Gerding/CCSA

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Family: Euphorbiaceae, Spurge view all from this family

Description With its abundant needle-like leaves resembling a young conifer, this weed of pastures and cemeteries has lime green flowers on erect stems and milky, toxic sap.
Habit: introduced perennial herb; clustered, branched, densely leafy stems; milky sap; rhizomatous, taprooted, forming large colonies.
Height: 4-18 in (10-45 cm) or more, may reach 32 in (80 cm).
Leaf: alternate or spiraling, very narrowly linear, edges often wavy; to 1.25 in (3 cm) long on stem, to 0.35 in (9 mm) on branches, to 0.125 (3 mm) wide.
Flower: small flower-like structure, yellow-green to greenish-yellow, to 0.5 in (12 mm) wide; with small overlapping oval bracts, lime-green maturing to purple-red, and yellow center (the actual flowers); in tight terminal cluster of 10 or more flowerheads, to 12 in (30 cm) wide.
Fruit: small capsule, 0.125 in (3 mm) diameter.

Warning Although purgatives have sometimes been made from the roots of this plant, large doses can cause poisoning; in fact, all members of this genus can be toxic if ingested. Animals can be fatally poisoned by repeated feeding on hay containing this or other spurges. Contact with this plant, especially its milky sap, can cause irritation of skin, eyes, and mucous membranes. Sensitivity to a toxin varies with a personís age, weight, physical condition, and individual susceptibility. Children are most vulnerable because of their curiosity and small size. Toxicity can vary in a plant according to season, the plantís different parts, and its stage of growth; and plants can absorb toxic substances, such as herbicides, pesticides, and pollutants from the water, air, and soil.

Flower March to August, occasionally to September.

Habitat Usually dry: pastures, grasslands, prairies, ditches, woodland openings, old fields, fence rows, old homesteads, cemeteries, roadsides, railways, disturbed areas; also cultivated as an ornamental.

Range Native to Europe; introduced as an ornamental in the mid-1800s; escaped and naturalized throughout North America, except for Alaska and northern Canada; not reported in Alberta, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Louisiana, Mississippi, or Florida. Most common in northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada.

Discussion Also called graveyard spurge, graveyard weed, yellow weed. Considered weedy or invasive in many locations; noxious or prohibited in Colorado, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.

As in dogwood, the "flower petals" of E. cyparissias are really bracts. The true flowers are tiny yellow dots at the center of the bracts (male flowers) and the green globe on a slim stalk protruding from the center (female flower and fruit). This flower structure, called a cyathium, and the milky juice exuded by the stem, are typical of many Euphorbia species.