Despite their fairly common occurrence and the bizarre composition of their flowers, members of the Euphorbiaceae, or the Spurges & Mercuries, are often over-looked on a midday walk through campus. But no more! I will teach you some obvious characteristics making it easier for you to identify when you are out and about!
The most obvious feature is the curious, cup-like inflorescences. At first glance this whole structure appears to be the flower, but don’t be fooled, Euphorbiaceae have ‘false flowers’ or cyathia (singular: cyathium). The cup is formed from fused bracts and peripheral nectar glands, characteristically shaped and useful for identification in some species. Inside is a ring of male flowers each with single stamens and in the middle is a single female flower with a rather obvious fruit capsule topped with several hair-like stigmas.If you are still not sure if you have a member of the Euphorbiaceae then look for simple, alternate leaves and if you’re still not convinced then snap the stem and it should release a sticky milky residue. The milky sap of many Euphorbia species have important medicinal properties which aid in the healing of skin problems, but be careful, other species will do the opposite causing nasty blistering or potentially worse things like blindness and even death..
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