This is your warning – stay away from myrtle spurge. Period.
In Colorado, myrtle spurge (also called donkey tail or creeping spurge) is a Class A noxious weed. What’s that mean? State law requires you to eradicate it, on private or public land. This is more serious than the annoying, prickly varieties of thistle that are found everywhere wild grasses grow. Some of those harm livestock. Myrtle spurge can harm you, and most often afflicts children.
I just learned about this detestable plant today. But I think I may have been exposed to it throughout the summer. In May, I went to a dermatologist with a very irritating, itchy, angry and bright red rash on my legs, including some inflammation. It started at my ankles and moved up my legs to about mid-thigh. I hadn’t been outside in shorts, I’d always been in pants, so it didn’t occur to me that a plant could have caused my issue. The dermatologist said I had a case of contact dermatitis. I have never been so itchy in my entire life. It was horrible. I tried not to scratch, but sometimes I’d wake up in the middle of night doing so. I drew blood from all the (restrained!) scratching.
With a cortisone shot and some medications (including prednisone), things calmed down over a week or two. At least I was able to resist most of the itching – best of all, I could sleep through the night. But it came back later in the summer – a few times. Each time, it took weeks to settle down. The second time, I returned to a dermatologist, who told me just to take some over-the-counter allergy medication. Gee, thanks. It took a bit longer for things to settle down that time. The third time I didn’t bother seeing a doctor, as it was clear neither of the dermatologists were interested in trying to discern the cause.
I remember one of the flare-ups occurring after I spent a portion of the day outside, but I was careful. I had on long pants and clogs, but no socks. I hopped on the riding mower. I was careful not to walk in any areas where plant life could touch my skin. So at this point I had considered that maybe I was allergic to something outside. But where I would not let my bare legs touch plants, I would pull up weeds with my bare hands, wearing short sleeves. I never had a rash on my hands or arms. While I wash my hands when I come in from gardening activities, I only wash my arms immediately if I see dirt or dust.
And at some point, it got worse. My final flare up of the summer came in the form of exceedingly painful blisters – they felt like chemical burns. I watched a blister on the inside of one ankle grow from multiple little blisters one night, to dime size in the morning, and greater than quarter size that afternoon. The pain was incredible. I’ve had my share of blisters before – and even hiked several miles on fresh blisters with a heavy backpack and hiking boots rubbing every side of those blisters. I can endure pain. I went barefoot or wore thongs – these burning blisters were near my ankle bones – nothing touched them. And yet the pain was that bad. I’ve had second degree burns over both hands and my face, enough to cause me to be out of work for three weeks – and yet the pain of a single blister on each ankle rivaled that pain. It was time for some medical help. I didn’t bother with the dermatologist.
I went to my internist, who was baffled. She gave me more prednisone, two types of allergy meds (one prescription strength), and did some blood tests. She could not come up with a cause, but she at least tried – far more so than my dermatologists. So I gave up on figuring out the cause, at least until it happens again.
Today I ran across myrtle spurge. I googled the heck out of it – I recommend you do the same if you live in any of the Western states. It used to be sold as an ornamental plant, particularly suited to xeriscapes and rock gardens! On the surface it sounds good: it’s hardy, drought tolerant, thrives in full sun (even at higher altitudes, which are more caustic environments), and is deer resistant. But all parts of the plant are poisonous. They are caustic skin irritants, and cause yellowish blisters. Fortunately, some people have posted pictures of their children’s faces after playing in myrtle spurge. Those blisters look identical to the ones I had.
I’m not exactly self diagnosing the cause of my mysterious skin irritant, but next time I need to see a doctor because of the out-of-control rashes or blisters like I experienced over the summer, I’m taking information on this plant. Several places claim that children are more likely to get rashes and blisters because they pick the flowers. So perhaps a local pediatrician would be more likely to identify symptoms of contact with myrtle spurge than an internist (specializing in adult medical care)? I saw a news article from Colorado Springs – six children were all afflicted from myrtle spurge contact. An emergency room physician father of one child (not sure if it was the same or a separate instance) had never seen or heard of myrtle spurge or its effects. That leads me to believe it’s not commonly known amongst the medical community. (I really hope I’m wrong.)
I spent several hours today researching myrtle spurge – most of the information I can find just says it’s a caustic skin irritant and causes blister-like burns. I think I’d call them burn-like blisters (at least that was my experience). Unfortunately, I found nothing in the way of home remedy advice, nor anything helpful on the medical side. I found lots of state recommendations (Colorado, Utah, and Washington were the most common sources) for eradication. Basically, it’s a manual labor solution, on a weekly basis, when the ground is moist. And it’ll take several years to eradicate it. Ugh. But I’d rather know what I need to do than be as clueless as I was, well, this morning.
Counties in Colorado each seem to have a weed control expert on the county staff. There are state resources as well. I have a call in to my county’s weed control expert. From looking at the pictures, I think I’ve seen myrtle spurge in my back yard. But until I see it in Spring, I don’t know for sure. Even then, I’m not particularly adept at plant identification. So I’m looking for tips on how to positively identify this wicked scourge of a spurge. If I discern anything really useful, I’ll add it here. Until then, be aware this nasty devil exists and do your research. Oh, and wear socks, boots, long pants, and rubber gloves if you know or suspect you’re dealing with myrtle spurge.
And if you’ve had contact with this enemy, what happened? Please share!