Underfoot: Spotted Spurge

By Susan Sprout

For those of you who do your walking in town, here’s a plant you may have seen growing from pavement cracks and then sprawling out like a mat over the sidewalk. It is Spotted Spurge, Chamaesyce maculata, a member of the Euphorbiaceae or Spurge Family.

This interesting little plant is a native annual that blooms from May to October. Its paired, dark green leaves are slightly toothed and hairy. They stand out against the slender, red stem which is also covered with fine hairs. On closer examination, you may find a reddish blotch on each leaf.

Spotted Spurge surging from between two sidewalk blocks.

Be careful if you pull off a piece of the plant to look at – the milky latex that seeps out of the torn stem is a caustic skin irritant. Yes, I itched from it because I placed it on the desk where I do research and write. Yes, before I did the research and found out about the itchy juice.

Male and female flowers grow cupped in structures called cyathias that are produced in the leaf forks. You really need a magnifier to see their white or pinkish petal-like appendages and the hairy three-lobed capsule that the pollinated female flower develops. Each valve of the capsule contains a single seed that is ridged and pitted.

A close up of Spotted Spurge

You may see resident flocks of Mourning Doves pecking at the plants. These seeds are hydrophilic, by the way. When wet, they can adhere to surfaces – like shoes of passers-by. Spotted Spurge is known in all of the states except Alaska. It has even been introduced to Hawaii.