These small erect herbs sprout up everywhere, especially in the moist winter season. They are petty spurge (Euphorbia peplus), one of three kinds of spurge (so far) found in my garden. These European natives form picturesque little stands, bloom for a while, and then fade and dry into straw-like heaps.
Euphorbias are weird but pretty plants, typically with separate male and female flowers borne in curious clusters. The “petals” of these flowers are actually modified leaves.
Almost all spurges have poisonous sap. Sometimes they make cows and other pasture animals sick. In fact, the name “spurge” comes from the same root as “purge,” which is what happens when you eat some.
Euphorbias are part of a huge, diverse genus with more than 2000 species around the world. Poinsettias are spurges. Some spurges have developed extreme tolerance to drought and aridity. Some of them actually resemble cacti. There are disputes among botanists about the complex family tree of the Euphorbias.
In my garden there are also small low-growing plants of spotted spurge (AKA ground spurge). Unlike petty spurge, spotted spurge lies flat and seldom rises higher than the thickness of a pencil. It can form wide, spreading mats where the ground is bare and there’s enough sun.
Like other spurges, spotted spurge is poisonous. It resembles purslane, which is edible, but has succulent leaves without the purple spots. Be careful if you harvest purslane for the salad!
Not all spurges are (what some people would call) “weeds.” Some have been bred for beauty or size, appearing as prized garden plants. In my garden when I first took it over, there was a large bush of decorative spurge.
That large bush had to be removed because it was so old, and the space was needed. But over the years it had dropped some seeds, and in the spring of 2012 some of them sprouted. Here is how they looked in mid-January 2013. They are tall, bluish plants with red stems and leaves in whorls:
Now it is March, and they are blooming. The flowers are a lot more colorful than petty spurge: