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Leafy Spurge - Euphorbia virgata
Other Names:  Euphorbia esula [misapplied]

Noxious Weed: Priority 2B
Non-native Species

Global Rank: GNRTNR
State Rank: SNA
(see State Rank Reason below)

Agency Status
MNPS Threat Rank:
C-value: 0

External Links

State Rank Reason (see State Rank above)
Euphorbia virgata is a plant native to Europe and Asia that was introduced into North America (FNA 2016). A conservation status rank is not applicable (SNA) because the plant is an exotic (non-native) in Montana that is not a suitable target for conservation activities.

NOTE: There is a discrepancy between the number of observations and counties represented in the herbaria (Consortium of Pacific Northwest Herbaria; versus the Montana Natural Heritage Program databases. It is important to document new County and other site occurrences with nice quality plant specimens of which some should be deposited in our State herbaria (University of Montana, Montana State University, Montana State University-Billings). Depositing specimens in the herbaria allows identifications to be confirmed, provides a central location for educating and sharing information, and allows specimens to be studied for genetics, morphology, and ecology.
General Description
PLANTS: Glabrous, perennial forb with spreading roots and branched stems that are 30–80 cm tall. Plants produce vegetative and flowering stems that when cut exude a white, milky latex. Stems are pale green to blue-green. Sources: Jacobs 2007; Lesica et al. 2012

LEAVES: Stem leaves are alternately arranged and sessile or with very short petioles. Leaf blades are green to blue-green, linear-oblanceolate in shape, 2–6 cm long, and have entire (smooth) margins. When cut leaves cut exude a white, milky latex. Sources: Jacobs 2007; Lesica et al. 2012

INFLORESCENCE: A terminal umbel of yellow-green, ovate bracts containing inconspicuous flowers that lack petals and sepals. The bracts are 8-16 mm long. Above the bracts, the true flowers are green and occur within a cup-like involucre called a cyathium (plural is cyathia). Each cyathium contains one seed (female) flower, 3 (male) pollen flowers, are 2–3 mm long, and have 4 yellowish glands with a lunate appendage. Fruits are a capsule, about 4 mm long, lobed and nearly smooth. Sources: Jacobs 2007; Lesica et al. 2012

Flowering and fruiting spring through fall (FNA 2016).

Diagnostic Characteristics
Leafy Spurge is part of a taxonomically complex group of species native to Europe and Asia (Berry et al. in Flora of North America (FNA) 2016).

The true Euphorbia esula Linnaeus is restricted to certain parts of Europe where it shows little tendency to weediness (Berry et al. inFNA 2016). It is distinguished from Euphorbia virgata by leaf shape: oblanceolate to obovate-elliptic, margins not parallel at the middle and wider near their apex, 3-8(-10) times longer than wide, a round to subacute apex, and a base that is gradually attenuate to cuneate. Herbarium specimens of i>Euphorbia esula indicate it was present in North America, but apparently has not persisted, and is assumed absent (Berry et al. inFNA 2016).

Euphorbia virgata retains the common name Leafy Spurge.
It is widespread in Europe and temperate Asia where it shows a weedy characteristic (Berry et al. inFNA 2016). It is distinguished by:
* Leaf blades are linear, linear-oblanceolate, or linear-oblong, 6-15 times longer than wide, margins are (almost) parallel at the middle, leaf apex is acute, and leaf base is truncate to abruptly attenuate.
* Stems are blue-green to pale green.

Yellow Toadflax - Linaria vulgaris, exotic and Noxious.
* Non-flowering plants are similar. Leaves are glabrous, long and narrow.
* Flowers are snapdragon-like, yellow, and lack leafy bracts.

Species Range
Montana Range


Range Comments
Leafy Spurge is native to Europe and Asia. It may have been introduced into North America via Minnesota with shiploads of oats (Batho 1932). It may also have been brought to northeastern North America as an ornamental in 1829, escaped yards and gardens, and by the 1900s had spread to the west coast (Best et al. 1980). However, it is speculated that the weedy trait is caused by hybridization and polyploidy (Berry et al. inFNA 2016). It is also possible that the widespread occurrence of Leafy Spurge in North America is partly due to numerous introductions in grain imported from Eurasia (Berry et al. inFNA 2016).

Observations in Montana Natural Heritage Program Database
Number of Observations: 34020

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density



(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

Grasslands, meadows, woodlands, and riparian forests in the plains and valleys of Montana (Lesica et al. 2012).

Presumably due to it high genetic variability it easily adapts to local growing conditions. It is often found in pastures, rangelands, roadsides, waste areas, abandoned fields, and bottomlands. It is less frequent on upper slopes, summits, and shoulder slopes.

Leafy Spurge can avoid direct competition with other plants by growing at the very early and late portions of the growing season. Its deep and extensive root system makes it a strong competitor.

Reproductive Characteristics
Plants reproduce by seed and by adventitious buds on the root crown and on the spreading rootstock.

LIFE CYCLE [Adapted from Lajeunesse et al. in Sheley and Petroff 1999; Jacobs 2007.]
Shoots that grow from adventitious buds on the roots often emerge in April. Seeds typically germinate in the spring with peak emergence occurring from May to early June. Shortly after emergence seedlings grow roots with vegetative buds. If injured the buds break their dormancy to re-generate new shoots. Plants develop a root crown and produce both vegetative and flowering stems.

Plants that flower are usually two years old. In May to early June plants develop bracts, followed about 2 weeks later (mid-June) by flowers. It is the appearance of bracts that gives an appearance of blooming. By mid-July flowering is done. About 20-30 days later capsules have matured. Upon drying, capsules burst open to disperse the many seeds. This action can disperse seeds up to 15 feet. Each capsule produces 1-3 seeds.

Plants can also separate from its roots which breaks bud dormancy and stimulates shoot development. In later summer as soil moisture declines, the stems dry, appearing as light-brown to tan canes, and can become dormant. In the fall growth can resume. Plants are killed by a hard frost.

It is estimated that a plant can produce 30 to 130 seeds. Seeds buried 2 to 4 inches below the surface can germinate. In the soil seeds have been shown to retain viability for at least 8 years. Typically seeds germinate within two years after maturing. Seed dormancy is easily broken and germination can occur in a wide range of temperatures.

Seeds are dispersed by many methods: mechanical action of the drying capsule; floating in water; in mud that adheres to boots, vehicles and other equipment, animal hooves; cling to animal hair or clothing; through ingested and deposition in feces; and a contaminant in seed and haying.

ROOTS [Adapted from Lajeunesse et al. in Sheley and Petroff 1999; Jacobs 2007.]
Vertical roots can grow to 10 feet deep. Lateral roots can extend outwards from the parent plant by 15 feet per year. Roots are covered with thick, corky bark which allows them to better withstand drought, grazing pressures, or herbicide application. The roots sometimes exude translocated herbicides into the soil. The extensive root system can store large reserves of carbohydrates, which helps the plant sustain itself for years and be able to provide energy for re-growth. The extensive root system grows rapidly and extensively, making the plant difficult to manage (Lajeunesse et al. in Sheley and Petroff 1999). In 4 months and in the absence of competition, seedling roots grow to 3 feet deep and spread to 40 inches.

An integrated vegetative management approach provides the best long-term control for Leafy Spurge. It requires that land-use objectives and a desired plant community be identified (Shelly et al. in Sheley and Petroff 1999). Once identified the integrated weed management strategy can promote a weed-resistant plant community that serves other land-use objectives such as livestock forage, wildlife habitat, or recreation (Shelly et al. in Sheley and Petroff1999).

PREVENTION [Adapted from Lajeunesse et al. in Sheley and Petroff 1999]
Preventing the establishment of Leafy Spurge can be accomplished by many practices:
* Learn how to accurately identify Leafy Spurge in order to detect occurrences and know where to implement control methods.
* Prevent vehicles from driving through and animals from grazing within infested areas.
* Thoroughly wash the undercarriage of vehicles and wheels in a designated area before moving to uninfested areas.
* Frequently monitor for new plants, and when found implement effective control methods.
* Maintain proper grazing management that creates resilience to noxious weed invasion.
* Use certified weed-free seeds and hay, including feed for pack animals.
* Before moving animals from infested areas, hold cattle for 6 days and sheep for 11 days in corrals or pastures to allow seed to pass through the digestive tract before moving to uninfested areas. Monitor and treat the holding area for emerging Leafy Spurge.
* Do not pick the flowers or transport plants. Where possible, contribute to or develop educational campaigns to help eradicate or reduce Leafy Spurge populations.

PHYSICAL and CULTURAL CONTROLS [Adapted from Lajeunesse et al. in Sheley and Petroff 1999]

Hand-pulling can be done for small infestations. However, it is considered ineffective because of the deep depth of the root system and its numerous buds.

Mowing may remove flowering stems, but is ineffective for controlling Leafy Spurge because it re-sprouts from buds on the spreading roots.

Tilling can be effective if done intensively throughout the growing season or only during fall. The intensive program would begin in the spring, use a duckfoot cultivator that tills 4 inches deep, and repeats the tilling every 3 weeks until the soil freezes for 1 to 2 growing season. The schedule must not be interrupted because fragmented rootstock will quickly re-sprout. Machinery must be thoroughly cleaned to prevent contaminated the field and other areas. Fall-only cultivation would occur in the autumn when Leafy Spurge is 3-6 inches tall, cultivate 1-2 times after harvest, and for 3 years. Fall-only cultivation allows crops to grow, limits organic matter degradation, and reduces soil erosion. Combining the Fall-only cultivation with other methods could provide better control.

Prescribed burning by itself is ineffective for controlling Leafy Spurge because fire stimulates seed germination and re-sprouting of the buds on the root crown and spreading roots. However, herbicide absorption might be improved when integrated with a burning plan. Burning removes all of the above-ground biomass and provides a uniform surface for re-growth to be seen and for the herbicide to be applied uniformly. After burning about 5 weeks of re-growth should occur before the herbicide is applied. The combination does not control Leafy Spurge any better, but provides a better surface for herbicides to be applied and absorbed into the plant.

BIOLOGICAL CONTROLS [Adapted from Jacobs 2007]
14 insects have been approved for introduction into the U.S. as biological control for leafy spurge by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Of all the biocontrol insects for Leafy Spurge Aphthona Flea Beetles are widespread and have reduced Leafy Spurge the most in Montana. The exception is Minute Spurge Flea Beetle (Aphthona abdominalis) which is reported as not established in Montana and not available in the U.S. The Leafy Spurge Flea Beetles are capable of surviving cold, sub-freezing winter temperatures. Larvae of Aphthona Flea Beetles develop in the soil, and cool soil temperatures can delay development and establishment. Herbicide applications, grazing, or mowing that reduces the density of Leafy Spurge has been observed to improve flea beetle establishment. Ants are predators on these insects and releases should not occur where there are ant mounds.
Some bio-control companies sell or provide mixed releases to boost success since release sites vary in soil type, canopy cover, and moisture.

* Brown Dot Leafy Spurge Flea Beetle (Aphthona cyparissiae): Best where soils are 40 to 60 % sand and Leafy Spurge stems are taller than 21 inches and 50-121 stems per square yard based on research in Canada. Green Needle Grass (Stipa viridula) is an indicator of suitable habitat in Canada.

* Black Leafy Spurge Flea Beetle (Aphthona czwalinae): It not does establish well in clay or acidic soils or in deeply shaded areas.

* Copper Leafy Spurge Flea Beetle (Aphthona flava)

* Brown-legged Leafy Spurge Flea Beetle (Aphthona lacertosa): Best where sites are open, sunny, mesic to moderately dry, but can do well on wet sites too.

* Black Dot Leafy Spurge Flea Beetle (Aphthona nigriscutis): Best suited for dry sites with full solar exposure, well-drained soils with less than 3% organic matter, and Leafy Spurge plants of less than 30 inches tall and fewer than 60 stems per square yard (Jacobs 2007). It has been found to feed on the native Euphorbia brachycera, which is a plant that occurs in Montana.

Clearwing Moth (Chamaesphecia crassicornis): Moth where larvae attack roots and stems.

Hungarian Clearwing Moth (Chamaesphecia hungarica): Moth where larvae attack roots.

Spurge Hawkmoth (Hyles euphorbiae): Best where Leafy Spurge plants are dense within open areas near trees. Larvae consume leaves and can kill the plants. Larvae pass through five growth stages before becoming adults. Larvae have toxins that deter predators; however, their pupae are eaten by birds, ground squirrels, and other small mammals.

Red-headed Leafy Spurge Stem Borer (Oberea erythrocephala): It seems to establish best in riparian areas and mesic sites with trees. When adults lay eggs they girdle and often kill Leafy Spurge stems. Larvae will kill stems when feeding, which reduces the plant’s ability to store energy or produce seeds. They are compatible with Apthona Flea Beetles, causing greater negative impacts to Leafy Spurge.

Leafy Spurge Tip Gall Midges (Spurgia esulae): Best where sites are have cooler areas (partially shaded) with dense Leafy Spurge. The insect forms a gall at the tip of the stem. From the gall larvae attack the growing shoot tips, which prevents flowering but stimulates branching and shoot re-growth. The insect can produce up to three generations each summer which attack the new shoots.

Threats or Limiting Factors
Leafy spurge is very competitive, displacing native plants, and it can form monocultures (Lajeunesse et al. in Sheley and Petroff 1999). This causes a loss in plant diversity and a loss of forage and habitat for wildlife species (Lajeunesse et al. in Sheley and Petroff 1999).

Leafy spurge is a strong competitor because mature plants can sprout new stems from buds on the roots in April – before many other plants are growing (Lajeunesse et al. in Sheley and Petroff 1999). Plants may become dormant in late summer as soil moisture declines, but come fall plants can re-grow by take advantage of moisture, light, and nutrient resources (Lajeunesse et al. in Sheley and Petroff 1999).

  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
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    • Bakke, A.L. 1936. Leafy spurge, Euphorbia esula L. Iowa Agric. Exp. Stn. Res. Bull. 198:209-245.
    • Bartz, S., B. Landgraf, P. Fay, and K. Havstad. 1984. Leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula) as a forage component for ewes and lambs. Montana Agr. Exp. Sta. Journal Paper No. J-1495.
    • Best, K.F., G.G. Bowes, A.G. Thomas, and M.G. Maw. 1980. The biology of Canadian weeds. 39. Euphorbia esula L. Can. J. Plant Science 60:651-663.
    • Bowes, G.G., and A.G. Thomas. 1987. Longevity of leafy spurge seeds in the soil following various control programs. J. Range Management. 31:137-140.
    • Calvin, M. 1978. Greenfactories. Chem. and Eng. News 56:30-36.
    • Coupland, R.T., G.W. Selleck, and J.F. Alex. 1955. The reproductive capacity of vegetative buds on the underground parts of leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula L.) Can J. Agric. Sci. 35:477-484.
    • Dunn, P.H., and A. Radcliffe-Smith. 1980. The variability of leafy spurge (Euphorbia spp.) in the United States. North Central Weed Control Conf. Res. Rep., Vol. 37:48-53.
    • Hanson, H.C., and V.E. Rudd. 1933. Leafy spurge life history and habits. North Dakota Agric. Exp. Sta. Bull. 266. 24 pp.
    • Harris, P., P.H. Dunn, D. Schroeder, and R. Vonmoos. 1985. Biological control of leafy spurge in North America. Weed Sci. Sco. Amer. Monograph Series 3:79-92.
    • Lesica, P., M. T. Lavin, and P. F. Stickney. 2012. Manual of Montana Vascular Plants. Fort Worth, TX: BRIT Press. viii + 771 p.
    • Noble, D.L. 1980. Evidence of leafy spurge dispersal by birds. Weed Sci. Soc. Am. Newsletter 8(3):8.
    • Raju, M.V.S. 1975. Experimental studies on leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula L.) I. Ontogeny and distribution of buds and shoots on the hypocotyl. Bot. Gaz. 136:254-261.
    • Selleck, G.W. 1958. Life history of leafy spurge. Proc. N.C. Weed. Cont. Conf. Pp. 16-17.
    • Selleck, G.W., R.T. Coupland, and C. Frankton. 1962. Leafy spurge in Saskatchewan. Ecolog. Monogr. 32:1-29.
    • Steenhagen, D.A., and R.L. Zomdahl. 1979. Allelopathy of leafy spurge. Weed Sci. 27:1-3.
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Citation for data on this website:
Leafy Spurge — Euphorbia virgata.  Montana Field Guide.  .  Retrieved on , from