Graveyard Spurge: Gone to Flowers, Every One

Cypress or Graveyard Spurge volunteers along sunny roadsides in Floyd County

Immediately upon walking out of church Sunday, I was struck by a distinct sweet smell that was not familiar, and yet in the back of my mind (or my nose’s mind) I had smelled it before long ago.

Across Huffville Road from the church, along a fence at the edge of a steep pasture that drains rain to the Atlantic (the other side carries it to the Gulf, but that’s another story) was a stretch of untended, unplanted wildflowers of a most distinct yellow. I recognized it as Graveyard Spurge.

The spurge family, Euphorbiacaeae, has common representatives as crack in the sidewalk plants, and in the seasonal Poinsettias we see at Christmas. In some settings, you’d easily mistake them for cacti, since they have the similar abilities and adaptations to withstand very dry conditions.

What I did not know about this invasive alien plant is that it’s seeds have a unique means of dispersal: link

“Fruits are explosive. Capsules that split open when mature and throw seed to over 16 feet. The plant reproduces vegetatively through lateral root buds, forming extensive clonal populations. The taproot may reach lengths of approximately 10 feet and give rise to lateral roots, which produce adventitious buds.”

No wonder, then, that it is often found in dense stands along the side of the road, and especially visible this time of year when in flower.

Other facts to know are that some folks are reactive to it’s milky sap:

‘Toxicity:  It is potentially toxic to horses and cattle. All parts of cypress spurge contain toxic latex that irritates the eyes, mouth, and gastrointestinal tract and causes dermatitis upon contact in some people.”

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: From whence and when, the subtitle of this post? Codgers and Codgerettes?

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Pete Seeger wrote and recorded it in 1961.
    Many people have recorded it:
    Joan Baez
    Peter Paul and Mary
    Dolly Parton
    Olivia Newton John
    And on and on and on

  2. I helped my late husband write a paper on leafy spurge, which I assume is related. As I recall, only goats and sheep would eat it, and only goat-stomachs would kill the seeds; sheep spread it further. They were studying it because it was taking over prime grazing land in Montana.

  3. “Gone to flowers, every one” brings back memories. My friends and I (during junior high and high school) sang that song many a time at Vietnam War protests in Washington. D.C. We thought it had been written during or shortly after the Civil War. It appears that Roger is correct. The music and lyrics are attributed to Pete Seeger.

  4. And also, re: Biocontrol, “Rhode Island has successfully used five chrysomelid beetles in the genus Aphathona and one cecidomyiid fly gall midge, Spurgia esulae Gagne to control cypress spurge.”

    So this is why I get so many dang beetles in my house!

    And it looks so innocent.

  5. Oh thank goodness I’m not the only one to remember the original source for this song. For me, at age 13 in 1961, it represents the first time that song lyrics sunk in: in this case, the shocking irony and infinite loop of “service to one’s country” resulting only in more flower, more widows and more sorrow. And back to yet MORE soldiers. It made an impression.