Lesser Florida Spurge

Euphorbia polyphylla

lesser florida spurge

Lesser Florida Spurge, photographed at Yamato Scrub Natural Area, Boca Raton, Palm Beach County, in August 2016.

Lesser Florida spurge, Euphorbia polyphylla, isn't the most conspicuous of plants. You can easily walk right past one of these guys in full bloom without really noticing it.

The flowers are tiny, the leaves are short, thin and sparse, and the wiry stems lift the plant barely a foot off the ground. But still, we find lesser Florida spurge charmingly unassuming.

A quick word about the Euphorbia genus. It's huge, and members are found all over the globe. Christmas time wouldn't be the same without one of its most prominent members, the poinsettia. All Euphorbias exude a toxic (more or less) latex sap if broken. Euphorbias can be relative giants — the rubber tree is a member — or on the dimutive side.

Which is where lesser Florida spurge is found. It maxes out at about a foot tall, is wiry, can be multi-stemmed or branched, with short, narrow leaves arranged alternately. Polyphylla means with many leaves, but lesser Florida spurge really has a sparse look to it. The flowers are less than an eighth of an inch across, with five white petals and a purplish-red center. Lesser Florida spurge blooms all year; it is a perennial.

As you might expect given the name, it is Florida native, found in the Peninsula from the central part of the state south to Miami-Dade County. It's also found in Louisiana. Pinelands are its preferred habitat.

As best we can tell, lesser Florida spurge does not attract butterflies either as a host or source of food. We humans have had minimal use for it other than as a cultivated plant used in natural landscapes and restorations.

But there is this: lesser Florida spurge manufactures certain types of chemicals called diterpines. Many plants make diterpines. What sets these apart is the fact that they are cytotoxic; they kill living cells, including cancer cells. These chemicals are being used to treat hormone sensitve or resistant prostate cancers and also cases where the cancer has spread to the bone. Many euphorbias make the same chemicals, and lesser Florida spurge isn't the preferred source. But it does give you pause to reflect when you see it in the woods.

Lesser Florida spurge is a member of the Euphorbiaceae family. Other common names include pineland euphorbia and pineland spurge. We've seen an old text refer to it as false ipecac. By the way, there is, in fact, a greater Florida spurge, Euphorbia floridana, but it's only found in the Panhandle and neighboring states. It doesn't really look anything like our guy, either.

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U.S. Department of Agriculture Distribution Maps

Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.

Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.