Leafy spurge is a long-lived perennial that normally grows 2 to 3 feet tall from a woody crown from below the soil surface. Each crown area produces several upright stems, giving the plant a clumplike appearance. The plant bears numerous linear-shaped leaves with smooth margins. The leaves have a characteristic bluish-green color but turn yellow or reddish orange in the fall. Stems originating from crown buds and roots begin growth in late April, making leafy spurge one of the first plants to emerge in the spring. The early and rapid growth gives leafy spurge a competitive advantage over crop and pasture plants. All parts of the plant contain a milky juice called latex, which is a useful identifying characteristic.
Leafy spurge produces a flat-topped cluster of yellowishgreen petal-like structures called bracts, which surround the true flowers. The showy, yellow bracts appear in late May and early June, giving the plant the appearance of “blooming.” However, the true flowers, which are small and green, do not develop until mid-June.
Seeds are borne in pods, which contain three gray-brown, oblong, smooth seeds. After the seed has matured, the seed pods burst explosively and throw seeds up to 15 feet from the parent plant. An average of 140 seeds is produced per stem, and seeds may remain viable in the soil at least eight years.
The root system of leafy spurge is extensive and consists of numerous coarse and fine roots that occupy a large volume of soil. Roots are most abundant in the upper foot of soil, but some roots can extend to a depth of 15 feet or more. The roots are woody and durable in structure, with numerous buds capable of producing new shoots.
Biological control of leafy spurge was initiated in the mid-1980s. To date, 10 species of insects have been released in North Dakota for control of leafy spurge, and six have become established. Four of the six established insects are flea beetles (Aphthona spp.), which have reduced the leafy spurge density more than any other agent.
The first flea beetle released in North Dakota was Aphthona flava Guill in 1986. This flea beetle has established at only a few sites in the state and occurs at densities too low to be effective. In 1988, a mixed population of Aphthona czwalinae Weise and Aphthona lacertosa Rosenhauer were released near Valley City, N.D. By 1995, the majority (greater than 90 percent) of this mixed population was A. lacertosa. Two additional flea beetles, Aphthona cyparissiae Koch and Aphthona nigriscutis Foudras, were released the following year. A. lacertosa and A. nigriscutis were established in almost every county in North Dakota by 1996 and have become the major biocontrol agents used for leafy spurge control.
Although Aphthona spp. adults feed on leafy spurge foliage, the major damage to the plant occurs when the larvae feed on the roots. Larvae feed on both the fine feeder roots used by the plant to absorb water and nutrients and the storage tissue of the root crown. This feeding both destroys root tissue directly and causes the plant to be more susceptible to other methods of control, such as herbicides and infection from soil borne pathogens.
Research at North Dakota State University found flea beetle establishment was best on silt loam, silt clay loam, clay loam and clay soils with an organic matter content of 6 percent to 9.5 percent. Flea beetles were least productive in fine sand to loamy fine sand soils with an organic matter content of 1 percent to 3 percent. In addition, the release area needs to be well-drained and not subject to frequent prolonged flooding or standing water, which will kill the larvae. Generally, flea beetles have not been very successful in controlling leafy spurge growing along waterways, in shaded areas or in very sandy soil.
The Spurgia esulae gall midge causes stem tip galls on leafy spurge, thereby decreasing seed production. It has been most successful near wooded areas. However, a second control method was needed to reduce the original leafy spurge infestation and to prevent spread from roots. A stem-boring beetle, Oberea erythrocephala Shrank, has been released and established in North Dakota in the 1980s, but to date, the population never has increased to sufficient numbers to decrease leafy spurge. The spurge hawkmoth (Hyles euphorbiae L.), a foliar feeder, was introduced in the 1970s but generally has not survived and when it did survive, control was too late in the growing season to be very useful.
From Lym and Travnicek, 2015, NDSU Circ. W-1411.