Leafy spurge [Euphorbia esula L.][EPHES][CDFA list: A][CalEPPC list: A2] Photographs Map of Distribution

Oblong spurge [Euphorbia oblongata Griseb.][Bayer code: none] [CDFA list: B] Photographs Map of Distribution

Toothed spurge or Serrate spurge [Euphorbia serrata L.][EPHSR][CDFA list: A] Photographs Map of Distribution

[Back to Index]



GENERAL DESCRIPTION:Noxious perennials with milky white latex to 0.8 m tall. Introduced from southwestern Europe.

SEEDLINGS:leafy spurge: Hypocotyl dull reddish-brown at the soil line, pale green above. Outer root tissues becoming brown and corky at an early stage. Cotyledons linear to elliptic, 2-4 mm wide, 4-19 mm long, becoming leaf-like with age. Upper surface covered with white powdery granules. Lower surface pale and conspicuously veined. Seedling leaves similar in shape to mature leaves except smaller. First leaves opposite. Subsequent leaves alternate but close together so as to appear sub-opposite. Leaf pairs folded or rolled longitudinally in bud, with one leaf enclosing the other. Seedlings develop adventitious buds near the soil line at an early stage. Seedling descriptions for oblong and toothed spurges are unavailable.

back to top of page

MATURE PLANT:Stems +/- woody at the base. Leaves sessile, glabrous, mostly alternate (some may be opposite or whorled just below the inflorescence branches). Inflorescence bracts opposite, cordate to kidney-shaped, sessile, glabrous, shorter and broader than leaves. Stipules absent.


FLOWERS:Monoecious (male and female flowers separate on same plant). Infloresences umbel-like at the stem tips, with the central inflorescences maturing first (cyme-like). Each infloresence appears to consist of one flower, but is actually a cluster of reduced unisexual flowers (cyathium). A cyathium consists of several staminate (male) flowers, each reduced to 1 stamen, inserted on a glabrous bell-shaped hypanthium (receptacle extension) and one pistillate (female) flower situated above the staminate flowers on a stalk from the center of the hypanthium. Each pistillate flower has 3 styles fused together at the bases and branched at the tips and a 3-chambered ovary. The rim of the hypanthium has 4 flattened glands that lack petal-like appendages. Insect pollinated.

back to top of page

FRUITS and SEEDS:Capsules round, 3-chambered, with 1 seed per chamber. Seeds ovoid to oblong, round in cross-section, 2-3 mm long, and with a yellowish caruncle (small elaisome) near the end of attachment.

POSTSENESCENCE CHARACTERISTICS:Leafy spurge shoots die back with the onset of the cold season. Leaves often turn reddish just before dropping. About 42 days of chilling are required to release plants from postsenescent dormancy.

HABITAT: Waste areas, disturbed sites,roadsides, fields, pastures.

leafy spurge: Also, rangeland, alfalfa fields, riparian areas. Plants tolerate sub-tropic to sub-arctic climates, xeric to mesic conditions and flooding for at least 4-5 months if shoots can grow above the water surface. Grows best on coarse-textured soils, although most soil types are tolerated.


back to top of page

PROPAGATION/PHENOLOGY:Mature capsules of many spurges rupture and forcefully eject seeds some distance from the parent plant.

MANAGEMENT FAVORING/DISCOURAGING SURVIVAL:Wearing gloves while handling plants can prevent skin irritation from the sap.

leafy spurge: Mowing, burning, and grazing do not significantly affect roots and typically stimulate the production of new shoots from root buds. Continuous grazing by sheep or goats can reduce the soil seed bank by preventing flower production, but roots can continue to produce shoots for many years (>8 years). Livestock, especially sheep and goats, foraging on plants in fruit should be quarantined for 5-6 days before transporting to uninfested areas to prevent the introduction of seed. Cultivation or discing can spread infestations by transporting root fragments and seeds.

back to top of page

SIMILAR SPECIES:There are many weedy spurge species, several of which appear similar. Refer to the tables Spurge: vegetative characteristics and Spurge: reproductive characteristics for comparison. The following species are most likely to be confused with leafy, oblong, and toothed spurges.

sun spurge, wartweed [Euphorbia helioscopia L.][EPHHE]: Annual to 0.5 m tall. Flowers March-August. Disturbed sites, waste areas. Northern and central North Coast, northwestern and central-western North Coast Ranges, San Francisco Bay region, South Coast. To 200 m (650 ft). Introduced from Europe.

caper spurge, gopher plant [Euphorbia lathyris L.][Cal EPPC list: need more information]: Potentially noxious annual or biennial with opposite leaves, to 1 m tall. Flowers most of year. Disturbed sites, waste areas, roadsides, coastal scrub, marshes, dunes. North, Central, and South Coasts, Central Valley. To 200 m (650 ft). Introduced from Europe.

Geraldton carnationweed [Euphorbia terracina L.]: Potentially noxious perennial or biennial, to 0.5 m tall. Often forms dense patches. Flowers March-(August). Disturbed areas, including disturbed grasslands, coastal bluffs, dunes, salt marsh, riparian areas, oak woodlands. Uncommon. South Coast (Los Angeles Co.). Recently introduced from southern Europe and the Mediterranean.

back to top of page


Prevention: Leafy spurge is an extremely noxious weed found throughout the Western United States. It is toxic when eaten by cattle and horses and may irritate the skin and eyes of humans who come in contact with its milky latex. It reduces forage quality and subsequent livestock carrying capacity. Leafy spurge is a very aggressive, deeply rooted perennial that effectively competes with native plants. Established stands are very difficult to control. It is classified as a CDFA class "A" noxious weed and should be aggressively managed to prevent its spread. There is considerable information regarding the control of leafy spurge, but little is known about oblong or serrate spurge. Serrate spurge is also a class A species and oblong spurge is a class B species. Regardless, they should also be managed to prevent spread from known infestations.
Leafy spurge may be spread by humans, animals, equipment, and through contaminated hay. It rapidly colonizes disturbed areas in pastures, rangelends, and roadsides. It may also persist along waterways and riparian areas, and is often transported by moving water. Cattle will generally avoid leafy spurge and subsequently overgraze more desirable neighboring plants. This type of selection allows leafy spurge to rapidly establish large dense stands. Therefore, avoid overgrazing and excessive disturbance in pastures and rangelands, and reduce cattle stocking rates in areas of known infestations.

Mechanical: Leafy spurge will not usually persist in agricultural fields that use conventional tillage practices. However, it can be a problem in fields where reduced or no-tillage systems are used. Herbicide rates required for leafy spurge control will almost always exceed rates allowed in cropping systems. Therefore, it may be necessary to implement a cultivation program to reduce infestations. Two post-harvest cultivations in the fall to a depth of at least four inches will help reduce infestations. This should be conducted for two to three years. It is very important to clean tillage equipment after cultivating fields infested with leafy spurge, as plant regeneration can occur from very small root segments.
Hoeing, grubbing, or hand pulling leafy spurge is a very difficult task, but may be used for small patches. These control methods will need to be repeated several times over the growing season, due to regeneration of new shoots from root buds. Long term control may require several years of diligence when using these methods. Gloves are recommended when handling leafy spurge due to the irritating effects of the latex. Avoid rubbing your eyes or face after handling leafy spurge, and always wash with a detergent and warm water.
Mowing is generally not effective for reducing leafy spurge infestations. However, mowing every 2-4 weeks can reduce seed production. Mowing may result in more uniform spurge regrowth, which is more conducive to uniform herbicide applications. However, this does not guarantee improved control.

Fire: Fire has not generally been successful for controlling leafy spurge, due to rapid regeneration. Fire may be beneficial in other ways, by removing litter and dead stems. Fire may also stimulate bunchgrass growth, which may improve its competitive ability with leafy spurge.

Biological: There are no current biocontrol programs for oblong spurge or serrate spurge. However, there are several insects approved for use as leafy spurge biocontrol agents in the United States. To date, none are known to have established in California. Five flea beatles (Aphthona spp.) have been established in many areas across the Great Plains and Pacific Northwest. They are destructive in a two-fold manner. The larvae feed on the root hairs and roots, and the adults feed on the stems, leaves, and flowers. Flea beetle establishment may take three to five years, and success varies with differing environmental conditions. Once established, flea beetles may significantly reduce spurge populations. However, new shoots will emerge from dormant root buds on undamaged roots.
Three moths (Chamaesphecia spp.) are being tested but are not currently available for distribution. They are destructive in the larval stage by feeding in the roots. Another moth (Hyles euphorbiae) has been established in certain areas, but is not effective when used alone. These and other insects may eventually provide long term leafy spurge management, but should not be used alone where eradication is the objective.

Table 1. Insect species introduced into the United States for the control of leafy spurge

Species name Common name Establishment Current availability
Aphthona abdominalis Minute spurge flea beetle Not recovered from releases in MT or ND Limited from Europe
Aphthona cyparissiae Brown dot leafy spurge flea beetle CO, ID, IA, MN, MT, NE, NV, NM, ND, OR, SD, WA, WI, WY Limited
Aphthona czwalinae Black leafy spurge flea beetle CO, IA, MN, MT, NE ND, OR, SD, WA, WI, WY Limited
Aphthona flava Copper leaf spurge flea beetle CO, ID, IA, MN, MT, NE, ND, OR, SD, UT, WA, WI, WY Moderate
Aphthona lacertosa Brown-legged leafy spurge flea beetle MT, ND, OR, WA Moderate
Aphthona nigriscutis Black dot leafy spurge flea beetle CO, ID, MT, NE, ND, OR, WA Where populations are established
Chamaesphecia empiformis None accepted Not recovered from releases in ID, MT Unavailable
Chamaesphecia hungarica Hungarian cleawing moth MT Unavailable
Chamaesphecia tenthrediniformis None accepted Not recovered from releases in ID, MT Unavailable
Dasineura sp. nr. capsulae None Not released Unavailable
Hyles euphorbiae Leafy spurge hawkmoth ID, MT, NE, ND Where populations are established
Oberea erythrocephala Red headed leafy spurge stem borer MT, ND, OR Montana county, MT
Spurgia esulae Leafy spurge tip gall midge MT, ND, OR MT, ND

Grazing: Although leafy spurge is toxic to cattle and horses, goats and sheep are tolerant and have been successfully used in control programs. A grazing program should be implemented in the spring when leafy spurge emerges. Researchers at North Dakota State University recommend sheep stocking rates of 3-6 head per acre of leafy spurge infested land per month, or 12-16 Angora goats per acre of leafy spurge per month. These animals will not eradicate leafy spurge, but will allow grasses to more effectively compete and become established. It is extremely important to place animals in a holding pen for 3-5 days before moving to a new area. This will prevent viable seed from being dispersed to new areas through the animals.
A dual grazing-herbicide strategy that allows for leafy spurge regrowth in the fall followed by a herbicide application has been proven more effective than either strategy alone. Interactions between biocontrol insects, herbicides and grazing are not fully understood. However, where flea beetles are established, herbicide applications can affect flea beetle populations by removing their food source. The gall midge (Spurgia esulae) has been shown to be compatible with herbicide applications, as long as a few patches are left untreated to sustain the gall midge population.

Competitive species: There is little information regarding establishment of competitive native species on leafy spurge infested land in California. Research from North Dakota State University indicated that Russian wildrye, pubescent wheatgrass, smooth brome, western wheatgrass, and Dahurian wildrye, were competitive with leafy spurge. These may or may not be desirable replacements, according to the goals and objectives of the land manager.

Chemical: Leafy spurge is very resilient to most herbicides due to regeneration from dormant root buds. Its extensive root system maintains a large pool of carbohydrates that allow for rapid shoot regeneration. One herbicide application will not provide long term control, and retreatment will be necessary for several years. Application timing is critical for herbicide effectiveness. Dicamba (4-8 lb ae/A) and 2,4-D (1-6 lb ae/A) are most effective when leafy spurge plants are flowering in early summer, or during he fall when regrowth has occurred. The lower rates will prevent seed production but will not provide long term control. Glyphosate (0.38-0.75 lb ae/A) is more effective after plants have begun filling seed. However, this will allow for some seed production and may not be the best strategy for an eradication program. Another strategy is to apply glyphosate in split applications over the summer in June, July, and August. This will control emerged plants and prevent seed production. The most effective herbicide for leafy spurge control is picloram at 0.5-2 lb ae/A. However, picloram is not labeled for use in California.
These rates of dicamba and 2,4-D will initially have a severe impact on desirable forbs and legumes, and yearly repeat herbicide applications may substantially reduce their recovery. Glyphosate is nonselective and will injure or kill other vegetation it contacts. Where infestations occur along water, an aquatic formulation of glyphosate (Rodeo) or 2,4-D can be used to prevent seed production. In wooded areas, dicamba may not be used and either glyphosate or 2,4-D amine formulation can be applied. It is very important to minimize drift in these areas, as significant injury to trees and shrubs may occur. It is also recommended that herbicide applications extend 3-5 m beyond patch edges due to the creeping nature of the roots. Herbicide use for managing leafy spurge is very costly and must be integrated with other strategies for long term success. Any control efforts not maintained on a yearly basis will result in complete and rapid reinfestation.

Integrated management: The best defense against leafy spurge is preventing infestation. Rapid identification and response may prevent leafy spurge from becoming a problem. Small patches should be aggressively controlled and monitored often for regrowth. Once infestations become larger, control is very difficult and costly. No single control measure will eliminate leafy spurge. However, integrative methods that utilize a number of techniques have been shown to successfully control infestations. There is also an interactive compact disc entitled "Purge Spurge: Leafy Spurge Database" which was developed by the United States Department of Agriculture/Agricultural Research Service, in conjunction with Montana State University. This is a comprehensive source of information on the biology and control of leafy spurge and is very easy to use. More information is available at the web site: http://www.sidney.ars.usda.gov

Al Henaid JS, Ferrell, M. A., and Miller, S. D. 1993. Effect of 2,4-D on leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula) viable seed production. Weed Technology 7:76-78.
Bangsund, D. A., Leitch, J. A., and Leistritz, F. L. 1996. Economics of herbicide control of leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula L.). Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 21:381-395.
Beck, K. G., Lym, R. G., Becker, R. L., Ferrell, M. A., Finnerty, D.W., Frank, R. J., Henson, M. A., and Peterson, M. A. 1993. Leaf spurge (Euphorbia esula) control and grass injury with sulfometuron. Weed Technology 7:212-215.
Belcher, J. W. and Wilson, S. D. 1989. Leafy spurge and the species composition of a mixed-grass prairie. Journal of Range Management 42:172-175.
Cyr, D. R. and Bewley, J. D. 1990. Seasonal variation in nitrogen storage reserves in the roots of leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula) and responses to decapitation and defoliation. Physiologia Plantarum 78:361-366.
Ferrell, M. A., Whitson, T. D., Koch, D. W., Gade, A. E., and Lym, R. G. 1993. Integrated control of leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula) with Bozoisky Russian wildrye (Psathyrostachys juncea) and Luna pubescent wheatgrass (Agropyron intermedium var. trichophorum). Proceedings of the Western Society of Weed Science 46:36-38.
Fornasari, L. 1995. Temperature effects on the embryonic development of Aphthona abdominalis (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae), a natural enemy of Euphorbia esula (Euphorbiales: Euphorbiaceae). Environmental Entomology 24:720-723.
Fornasari, L. and Pecora, P. 1995. Host specificity of Aphthona abdominalis Duftschmid (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae), a biological control agent for Euphorbia esula L. (leafy spurge, Euphorbiaceae) in North America. Biological Control 5:353-360.
Frank, J. R. and Tworkoski, T. J. 1994. Response of Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) and leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula) clones to chlorsulfuron, clopyralid, and glyphosate. Weed Technology 8:565-571.
Gassmann, A. and Schroeder, D. 1995. The search for effective biological control agents in Europe: history and lessons from leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula L.) and cypress spurge (Euphorbia cyparissias L.). Biological Control 5:466-477.
Hein, D. G. and Miller, S. D. 1991. Leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula) response to single and repetitive picloram treatments. Weed Technology 5:881-883.
Hein, D. G. and Miller, S. D. 1992. Influence of leafy spurge on forage utilization by cattle. Journal of Range Management 45:405-407.
Hickman, M. V., Messersmith, C. G., and Lym, R. G. 1990. Picloram release from leafy spurge roots. Journal of Range Management 43:442-445.
Kirby, D. R., Hanson, T. P., Krabbenhoft, K. D., and Kirby, M. M. 1997. Effects of simulated defoliation on leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula)-infested rangeland. Weed Technology 11:586-590.
Kronberg, S. L., Muntifering, R. B., Ayers, E. L., and Marlow, C. B. 1993. Cattle avoidance of leafy spurge: a case of conditioned aversion. Journal of Range Management 46:364-366.
Kuehl, B. D. and Lym, R. G. 1997. Leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula) control with quinclorac. Weed Technology 11:265-269.
Lacey, J. R., Wallander, R., and Olson, Rutz K. 1992. Recovery, germinability, and viability of leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula) seeds ingested by sheep and goats. Weed Technology 6:599-602.
Lacey, J. R. and Sheley, R. L. 1996. Leafy spurge and grass response to picloram and intensive grazing. Journal of Range Management 49:311-314.
Lamoureux, G. L. and Rusness, D. G. 1995. Quinclorac absorption, translocation, metabolism, and toxicity in leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula). Pesticide Biochemistry and Physiology 53:210-226.
Leistritz, F. L., Thompson, F., and Leitch, J. A. 1992. Economic impact of leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula) in North Dakota. Weed Science 40:275-280.
Lym, R. G. and Messersmith, C. G. 1987. Carbohydrates in leafy spurge roots as influenced by environment. Journal of Range Management 40:139-144.
Lym, R. G., Messersmith, C. G., and Swenson, O. R. 1988. Leafy spurge control near trees and water. Proceedings of the Western Society of Weed Science Vol. 41, 67-68.:67-68.
Lym, R. G. and Moxness, K. D. 1989. Absorption, translocation, and metabolism of picloram and 2,4-D in leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula). Weed Science 37:498-502.
Lym, R. G. and Messersmith, C. G. 1990. Effect of temperature on picloram absorption and translocation in leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula). Weed Science 38:471-474.
Lym, R. G. and Messersmith, C. G. 1991. Correlation of environment and root carbohydrate content to picloram translocation in leafy spurge. Journal of Range Management 44:254-258.
Lym, R. G., Beck, K. G., Fay, P. K., Ferrell, M., and Peterson, M. 1991. Leafy spurge control with glyphosate plus 2,4-D: a regional research project. Proceedings of the Western Society of Weed Science 44:33-35.
Lym, R. G. and Messersmith, C. G. 1991. Environmental effects on picloram translocation in leafy spurge. Rangelands 13:270-272.
Lym, R. G. 1992. Fluroxypyr absorption and translocation in leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula). Weed Science 40:101-105.
Lym, R. G. 1992. Absorption and translocation of foliar-applied sulfometuron in leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula). Weed Science 40:477-481.
Lym, R. G. and Messersmith, C. G. 1993. Fall cultivation and fertilization to reduce winterhardiness of leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula). Weed Science 41:441-446.
Lym, R. G. and Carlson, R. B. 1994. Effect of herbicide treatment on leafy spurge gall midge (Spurgia esulae) population. Weed Technology 8:285-288.
Lym, R. G. and Messersmith, C. G. 1994. Leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula) control, forage production, and economic return with fall-applied herbicides. Weed Technology 8:824-829.
Lym, R. G. and Messersmith, C. G. 1994. A decade of herbicide treatments controlled leafy spurge. North Dakota Farm Research 50:9-12.
Lym, R. G. and Manthey, F. A. 1996. Do spray adjuvants increase herbicide effectiveness on leafy spurge? Rangelands 18:17-20.
Lym, R. G., Nissen, S. J., Rowe, M. L., Lee, D. J., and Masters, R. A. 1996. Leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula) genotype affects gall midge (Spurgia esulae) establishment. Weed Science 44:629-633.
Lym, R. G., Sedivec, K. K., and Kirby, D. R. 1997. Leafy spurge control with angora goats and herbicides. Journal of Range Management 50:123-128.
MacIsaac, S. A. and Bewley, J. D. 1995. Seasonal changes in the starch content, and associated anabolic and catabolic enzymes, in the roots of the perennial weed, Euphorbia esula. Plant Physiology and Biochemistry 33:163-171.
Madsen, K. A. and Miller, S. D. 1988. Mow/fertilization treatments and their effect on leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula) control with herbicides. Proceedings of the Western Society of Weed Science 41: 62-67.
Masters, R. A., Stougaard, R. N., and Nissen, S. J. 1994. Leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula) control with fall-applied imazapyr, imazaquin, and imazethapyr. Weed Technology 8:58-63.
Masters, R. A., Nissen, S. J., Gaussoin, R. E., Beran, D. D., and Stougaard, R. N. 1996. Imidazolinone herbicides improve restoration of Great Plains grasslands. Weed Technology 10:392-403.
Maxwell, B. D., Wilson, M. V., and Radosevich, S. R. 1988. Population modeling approach for evaluating leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula) development and growth. Weed Technology 2:132-138.
McIntyre, G. I. 1990. The correlative inhibition of bud growth in perennial weeds: a nutritional perspective. Reviews of Weed Science 5:27-47.
Moxness, K. D. and Lym, R. G. 1989. Environment and spray additive effects on picloram absorption and translocation in leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula). Weed Science 37:181-186.
Nissen, S. J. and Foley, M. E. 1987. Correlative inhibition and dormancy in root buds of leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula). Weed Science 35:155-159.
Olson, B. E., Wallander, R. T., Thomas, V. M., and Kott, R. W. 1996. Effect of previous experience on sheep grazing leafy spurge. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 50:161-176.
Olson, B. E., Wallander, R. T., and Kott, R. W. 1997. Recovery of leafy spurge seed from sheep. Journal of Range Management 50:10-15.
Pecora, P., Pemberton, R. W., Stazi, M., and Johnson, G. R. 1991. Host specificity of Spurgia esulae Gagne (Diptera: Cecidomyiidae), a gall midge introduced into the United States for control of leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula L. "complex"). Environmental Entomology 20:282-287.
Stougaard, R. N., Masters, R. A., and Nissen, S. J. 1994. Leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula) control with imidazolinone and sulfonylurea herbicides. Weed Technology 8:494-498.
Thompson, W. M., Nissen, S. J., and Masters, R. A. 1996. Adjuvant effects of imazethapyr, 2,4-D and picloram absorption by leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula). Weed Science 44:469-475.
Tosevski, I., Gassmann, A., and Schroeder, D. 1996. Description of European Chamaesphecia spp. (Lepidoptera: Sesiidae) feeding on Euphorbia (Euphorbiaceae), and their potential for biological control of leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula) in North America. Bulletin of Entomological Research 86:703-714.
Trammell, M. A. and Butler, J. L. 1995. Effects of exotic plants on native ungulate use of habitat. Journal of Wildlife Management 59:808-816.
Walker, J. W., Kronberg, S. L., Al, Rowaily SL, and West, N. E. 1994. Comparison of sheep and goat preferences for leafy spurge. Journal of Range Management 47:429-434.
Williams, K. E., Lacey, J. R., and Olson, B. E. 1996. Economic feasibility of grazing sheep on leafy spurge-infested rangeland in Montana. Journal of Range Management 49:372-374.
Wolters, G. L., Sieg, C. H., Bjugstad, A. J., and Gartner, F. R. 1994. Herbicide and fire effects
on leafy spurge density and seed germination. Research Note Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, USDA Forest Service, RM-526, 5 pp.
back to top of page