Myrtle spurge, an invasive plant whose caustic sap can cause skin irritation and blindness, can be found throughout the Boise Foothills, including at trailheads like the Three Bears trailhead, shown here. | Nicole Blanchard, Idaho Statesman
BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — Two Utah girls went to the emergency room last week after picking a plant that can cause severe skin and eye irritation — the same invasive plant that can be found in foothills and along popular trails in the Gem State.
The girls were on a nature walk with their preschool when they picked some myrtle spurge, the Salt Lake Tribune reported. It’s a succulent-like Mediterranean plant sometimes used as decorative landscaping in the west thanks to its drought tolerance, according to Martha Brabec, a foothills restoration specialist with Boise Parks and Recreation.
Both Utah girls experienced burning and irritation, skin redness and swelling. Several of their classmates who’d picked myrtle spurge had less severe reactions. Brabec said the reaction comes from contact with the milky sap inside of the plant, which the Utah girls encountered when they picked the characteristic clusters of yellow flowers from the tops of the myrtle spurge. Had they just brushed past the plant or touched its leaves, Brabec said, they wouldn’t have had the same response.
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“If you just go near it, nothing will happen to you,” she said. “You have to break a branch off of the plant, and its milky sap is caustic to skin.”
If ingested, the myrtle spurge sap can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, according to the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board. It can also cause blindness if it reaches people’s eyes, and Brabec said it can have similar irritating or dangerous effects on dogs. Across much of the West — in Washington, Utah, Oregon and Colorado — it’s considered a noxious weed and its sale is banned. In Idaho, however, it’s classified only as an invasive plant.
Myrtle spurge, an invasive plant that can cause skin irritation or blindness when humans come in contact with its sap, grows in clusters along Shaw Mountain Road in the Boise Foothills. The area is popular with hikers and mountain bikers. | Nicole Blanchard, Idaho Statesman
HOW TO IDENTIFY, REMOVE MYRTLE SPURGE
Fortunately, myrtle spurge is easy to identify. It grows in clusters of long stems with a swirl of short, fleshy, blue-green leaves arranged in a geometric whorl. The top of each stem contains a cluster of yellow flowers this time of year.
“It’s unlike anything you’ll see growing in the Foothills,” Brabec said. “It has an alien look to it.”
Brabec said myrtle spurge, also called donkey tail spurge, likely spread into the Boise Foothills after escaping from landscaped yards. Water and humans can also transport its seeds.
And while it can be found in large numbers in some places — it’s plentiful along Shaw Mountain Road, for example — the plant hasn’t spread as widely as other invasive vegetation, like cheatgrass or goatheads. Clusters of myrtle spurge can be found alongside popular trails, where they pose a potential hazard to hikers, mountain bikers or dogs if their branches are broken. Brabec said she hasn’t heard of any instances in Boise where anyone has been seriously sickened or injured by myrtle spurge.
Myrtle spurge tends to grow in dense clusters, making it easier to eradicate than some other invasive plants.
“It reproduces around itself,” Brabec said. “It forms these dense monocultures that are isolated, so there is a unique opportunity to remove it and prevent spread.”
The city’s Weed Warriors program, which enlists volunteers to remove invasive plants, plans to focus on myrtle spurge removal later this month when it kicks off its season April 27.
“Now is the time to remove it because it hasn’t set seed yet,” Brabec said.
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