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Leafy spurge

(Euphorbia esula)

Photo of leafy spurge
Photo credit: Robert Bierman

Herbaceous perennial with deep root systems and milky sap in stems, flowers and leaves. The sap is distasteful to some animals and can cause blistering on their mouths or throats. Leafy spurge grows to be 2-3’ tall.


Other names for this plant include:
  • Common names: spurge, wolf's milk
  • Scientific names: E. esula ssp. esula; E. esula var. esula
Ecological threat:
  • It invades open areas, including prairies, savannas and roadsides. It can quickly create monocultures, excluding native vegetation and reducing wildlife habitat value.
  • Tolerant of a wide range of habitats, from dry to moist and sunny to semi-shade. Most aggressive in areas where soil moisture is limited.
Overview map of leafy spurge classification in WI
Restricted (orange) counties

Classification in Wisconsin: Restricted

Species Assessment Groups (SAG) were assembled to recommend a legal classification for each species considered for NR 40. The recommendation for leafy spurge was based upon this literature review [PDF] developed by the department.


Leaves: Leaves are simple, alternate, bluish-green, smooth and hairless with pointed tips.

Flowers: Small, yellowish-green, and surrounded by cup-shaped bracts. Flowers are paired, with 7-10 pairs clustered in umbels at tops of stems. Blooms late spring through mid-summer.

Fruits & seeds: Capsules contain three seeds each and burst when dry, dispersing seeds explosively. Each plant can produce more than 250 seeds. Seeds remain viable in the soil for up to 8 years. Dispersed by wildlife, humans and water.

Roots: Extensive root system with taproots extending up to 15’ deep and lateral roots spreading up to 35’. New sprouts from root buds facilitate spread into undisturbed areas.


Mechanical: Hand pulling or digging is only effective if the entire root system is removed.

Chemical: Aminopyralid is effective for spot treatments. Imazapic with methylated seed oil (MSO) is recommended for fall applications.

Biological: Stem and root boring beetle, four root-mining flea beetles and a shoot-tip gall midge.

For more information on control techniques, visit the Leafy spurge factsheet [exit DNR] by University of Wisconsin-Extension.


View leafy spurge pictures in our photo gallery!


Sources for content:
  • Czarapata, Elizabeth; Invasive Plants of the Upper Midwest: an illustrated guide to their identification and control. University of Wisconsin Press. 2005.
  • Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health, Last updated on Sunday, March 08, 2009. Leafy spurge [exit DNR]
  • Invasive Plant Atlas of New England: Euphorbia esula [exit DNR]
  • USDA Forest Service, Southwest Region. Field Guide for Managing Leafy Spurge in the Southwest, 2014. Leafy Spurge [exit DNR]
Links for more information: