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Wild Poinsettia Euphorbia heterophylla


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Wild Poinsettia - white "petals"
credit: Smithsonian Institution Department of Botany

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Alternate name: Mexican Fireplant

Family: Euphorbiaceae, Spurge view all from this family

Description Minute flowers lacking petals within a 5-lobed, gland-rimmed cup, all in a cluster atop each leafy stem just above partly red, white, or yellow leaves; sap milky.
Habit: native annual or perennial herb; hollow stems, branched or not, ribbed.
Height: 1-3 ft (0.3-1 m).
Leaf: alternate, variable, linear to lanceolate to ovate to lyrate, tip pointed, to 3 in (75 mm) long; at top of stem, opposite or whorled, colored cream or dull red at leaf base.
Flower: inconspicuous green balls (male flowers) and 3-lobed green or greenish-red ovary (female flower and fruit); in terminal cluster, flanked by leaves with colored bases resembling petals; in dense terminal cluster.
Fruit: small capsule, 0.125 in (3 mm) diameter.

Warning Members of this genus can be toxic if ingested; known to fatally poison cattle. Contact with 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 August to September.

Habitat Usually in sandy soil: open woodlands, forest clearings, croplands, pastures, waste lands, roadsides, disturbed areas; to 6000 ft (1800 m); occasionally grown as an ornamental.

Range Native to southern tier of U.S. states, from California east to Florida and Georgia; introduced and naturalized in Hawaii.

Discussion Also called mexican fireplant, painted euphorbia, painted leaf, painted spurge, spurge, milkweed, kaliko. Considered weedy or invasive in some areas; listed in Florida and South Carolina.

This species, though a weedy annual, recalls its relative, Poinsettia (Poinsettia pulcherrima), which is popular at Christmas and has large, red, pink, yellow, or white leaves just below the flowering cluster. Toothed Spurge (E. dentata), which occurs from Illinois east to Pennsylvania and southward, has hairier stems, opposite leaves, and leafy bracts usually green or white at the base.

As in dogwood, the "flower petals" of E. corollata are really bracts. The true flowers are tiny 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.