Welsh, Dalen dda, Flamgoed, Llaeth y cythraul. - French, Eu-phorbe, Epurge, Esule, Dithymal. - German, Milchpflanze, Purgirpflanze, Wolfsmilch. - Italian and Spanish, Euforbio. - Portuguese, Euphorbio. - Illyric, Euforbio, Mljecs, Veliki Mljkaz (E. characias), Kapus (E. frugifera), Tusct divii, Mlicer mladi, or mljecserac mali (E. peplus), Bukavaz (E. spinosa). - Arabic, Melekeh (E. peplus), Nomanyeh (E. re-tusa), etc.
Among the many old names of the spurge, there is one which has, as yet, completely baffled research respecting its origin; it is that of "welcome to our house," so generally applied by the peasantry to the sea-spurge (E. paralia). It would be interesting to ascertain it, as the other names are quite at variance - and justly so - with this kindly and pleasant title; so unlike "wolf's milk," "esula," llaeth y cythraul, or "devil's milk," tythymal, etc, all given in allusion to its deadly qualities. These qualities make the natives of Kashmir believe that if they dig up the E. agraria out of the ground while standing to leeward of it, serious consequences will ensue from the poisonous vapours emitted by the root. Nor will this seem so exaggerated a fear, if we recollect that even in our own climate, where all the secretions of plants are infinitely less developed than in lower latitudes, and in drier atmospheres, the lips, and even the tongue and throat may be seriously swelled if the former be touched by the fingers hours after gathering either of our diminutive spurges.
There exists an unfortunate belief that this fearfully acrid poison may be counteracted by the use of milk; but that this is an error is shewn by the case recorded by Dr. Vaughan, of a strong youth who was killed in a few hours, by a dose of spurge administered in milk*
The plant was, - and perhaps still is - used medicinally to destroy warts, and to cure various skin diseases; as well as to remove superfluous hairs; but the best advice that can be offered on the subject - and it cannot be too often repeated - is that of old Gerarde, who says: "These herbes by mine advise, would not be receiued into the body, considering that there be so many good and wholesome potions to be made with other herbes, that may be dronken without perill".
Another custom exists, which cannot be too strongly reprobated, of using the seeds of the so-called caper-spurge (E. lathyris) as a pickle instead of capers. It has been proved that though steeping in vinegar may lessen the deadly action, it does not destroy it; and serious illnesses have resulted from the use of this pickle instead of capers; or rather, instead of their proper substitute, where economy is required - nasturtium-seeds.
* See Withering's "British Plants".
Caper-Spurge. - Euphorbium lathyris.
The Abyssinians, like the Britons of old, use the euphorbia to poison fish; which, it is said, may afterwards be eaten with impunity, though a case is on record (and many more are probably unwritten) in which several persons were destroyed by merely drinking the milk of a goat which had eaten euphorbia; the animal itself, being the last to close the long list of deaths which ensued.
The question whether this plant was the eisule of Shakespeare, has been much discussed; but - though myself inclining to the opinion that it was - I confess it is an intricate one; and positive evidence on the subject is too slight to permit of a satisfactory decision. The reader, however, who wishes to examine it, will find much valuable information in the pages of "Notes and Queries".
We have, in Great Britain, fifteen, or, perhaps more truly, thirteen species of the euphorbia; several of which are pretty, though inconspicuous plants. The order to which they belong is a peculiarly distinctive one, representing, as it does, in the old world the grand and varied cacti of the new. There are at least twelve species in Egypt, and more than sixteen in Dalmatia.