The spurges are a large group of plants which are also known as Euphorbia.
This group consists of about 2,000 diverse species living mainly in the tropical and subtropical regions of Africa and the Americas where many succulent species can be found.
They are also found on island groups such as the Hawaiian Islands where they are known as “akoko” and the Canary Islands where they are called “tabaibas”.
The name spurge is derived from Middle English and Old French ‘espurge’ which meant to purge as the plant’s sap was used as a purgative. Its botanical name Euphorbia is said to have been coined in honour of Euphorbius, a Greek physician who used a species of spurge to cure King Juba II of Numidia from a swollen belly.
Spurges produce latex. This is a milk-like liquid that deters herbivours and heals wounds. It flows out of the plant and dries within minutes of coming in contact with air.
Some species produce very poisonous latex which can irritate the skin especially if it comes in contact with the eyes and air passages.
In Maltese the spurges are known as tengħud.
Nearly 20 species of spurge have been recorded in the Maltese islands. The pine spurge (tengħud komuni) is common in disturbed ground. The tree spurge, known in Maltese as tengħud tas-siġra, can grow up to 2 metres high.
It has bright yellow flowers which bloom in winter and spring while the Maltese spurge, known locally as tengħud tax-xagħri, grows up to 1 metre high and flowers mainly in March.
Several species have been imported as garden or decorative plants. The best known of these are the castor oil plant which grows profusely in moist areas especially valleys to the detriment of native species and the Poinsett which is better known as the Christmas flower.
Several species of butterflies and moths live on spurges. Some species are able to use the poison found in the plants to defend themselves from predators by becoming poisonous themselves. The Maltese spurge hawk moth, which is endemic to the Maltese islands, is one such species.
This article appeared in The Times on 24.03.2010