This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Erect; cauline and floral leaves oblong, narrow, obtuse; glands of the involucre obovate, petaloid; umbel five-rayed, rays two or three times di- or tri-chotomous; stem slender, erect, one to two feet high, generally simple and smooth; leaves one to two inches long, often quite linear, very entire, scattered on the stem, verticillate, and opposite in the umbel; the umbel is generally quite regularly subdivided; corollalike involucre large, white, showy. (Wood's Class-Book of Botany. See also Gray's Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States, and Chapman's Flora of the Southern United States.)
URING the wars between Caesar and Pompey, one of the partisans of the latter, King Juba, of Mauritania, or Southern Africa, distinguished himself by his martial skill, and has, therefore, had his deeds handed down for the edification of posterity, although finally he suffered a disastrous defeat. The same king is also celebrated in history as being the father of a son, great in science and general intelligence, who bore his own name. But he must himself have been a man of some penetration, if history can be trusted to tell the truth about kings; for it is said that Juba, although he had a very famous physician, himself discovered wonderful medical virtues in a plant growing wild in his dominions. It is furthermore stated that he named this plant after his physician, who was called Euphorbus, and hence our botanical name Euphorbia. What particular species it was that the Mauritanian prince thus honored with his attention has not been definitely decided; for in that king's old dominions the Euphorbiacau abound as thick, heavy, succulent bushes, many indeed being small trees of twenty feet or more in height. These plants have much the appearance of the cactuses of our own continent, bearing spines on the angles of the stems, as our cactuses do, but differing from them in having a milky juice which runs freely on the slightest puncture. In these histories of botanical names, such as the one just related, we must accept the accounts as they are handed down to us, without much questioning. Otherwise, if we were to examine them critically, we might frequently be led to reject them altogether. In the present case, for instance, it might be said that such very common and peculiarly striking plants must certainly have had some recognized name long before King Juba deigned to take notice of one of them. Even our wild Indians give common names to striking plants, and as the literal meaning of Euphorbia is "well fed," it might be argued that it is a designation very likely to occur to any one in connection with such fat-looking, milk-gorged vegetation, without necessitating the intervention of a royal intellect.
The common name of the family is "Spurge," and seems to come from the French "Espurge." It is the same in effect as our word purge, which expresses the peculiar virtues said to have been discovered by King Juba. All the members of the genus Euphorbia possess more or less of this purging character, and a plant of the same natural order, Ricinus communis, is indeed the veritable castor-oil plant. Aside from this purging character, the Euphorbias, all of which are poisonous, seem to have no qualities useful to mankind. Our own famous botanist, Nuttall, appears to have had quite a dislike to them, for he speaks of them in a manner unusual in one who always showed so great a devotion to nature in every form. He says: "The economy of the genus Euphorbia appears to be very limited. In the deserts of Africa they only tend, as it were, to augment the surrounding scenes of desolation; leafless, bitter, thorny, and poisonous, they seem to deny food to every animated being. Among the Euro-pean and American species, there are some which have been used medicinally, but they are, at best, dangerous and needless remedies." His contemporary, Rafinesquc, however, seems to have had more charity for them, as he selects our plant, the Euphorbia corollata, as a leading representative of the "Medical Flora of the United States," giving an illustration of it in the curious work bearing'that title. He says that, as a purge, the E. corollata is the most efficient of all the American species, as only about three to ten grains need to be taken, and that a dose of from ten to twenty is a good emetic. He further says that the action is always proportionate to the quantity taken, which is not the case with common ipecac, and that it is, therefore, more "manageable and safe." It appears that the peculiar medicinal character of this plant was known to the Indians, and Rafinesquc notes as a very singular circumstance the close resemblance of the name given to it by the Indians of Louisiana, "Peheca," to the Brazilian name, "Ipeca," more especially as both words have the same meaning, namely, "Emetic Root."
The root is somewhat fusiform in shape, with very little tendency to branch, and has only a few fibres attached to the lower end. It is covered with a thick bark, which in old plants sometimes constitutes two thirds of the whole root, and in this bark the medicinal properties chiefly reside. It seems to have served a good purpose to the Southern Confederacy during the civil war. Dr. F. R. Porcher, who was one of the medical officers in the Confederate service, says, on the authority of Dr. Frost, Professor of Materia Medica in South Carolina Medical College, who had used it in his practice "with great benefit," that "it is as active as ipecacuanha, and fully entitled to the consideration of the profession. . . . Even should it not be employed, every physician should be instructed in its properties, and, when the occasion requires it, know the substitute he can use in case of need." We have been so particular in recording the opinion of our physicians on this subject, because we were unwilling that so pretty a native plant should be regarded as an utterly worthless thing.
As a matter of scientific accuracy, we must also note, for the benefit of the lover of wild flowers, that the pretty blossoms which he admires are not flowers at all; that is to say, the white structures are not petals, as in ordinary flowers, but merely bracts. It is some comfort to know that the great Linnaeus thought they were true perianths, and that he placed the plant in his sexual class, Enneandria, as a single flower, having nine stamens. But really each stamen represents a single flower, as a close examination will show. The stamens come out from the axils of little leaves or bracts, each one having its little home to itself. The female flower is simply an ovary on a short stalk, and occupies the central place in this curious specimen of inflorescence. The flowers are, therefore, monoecious, or in other words, the male and female flowers are separate, although the petal-like semblance of the involucral bracts imparts to the whole the appearance of a seemingly regular hermaphrodite flower. This leafy or bract-like character of these appendages may be better understood by examining the common green-house Poin-setta, from Mexico, the scarlet bracts of which are so often found among cut flowers.
The Euphorbia corollata, or Flowering Spurge, is widely diffused over the eastern part of the United States, growing (sometimes low and spreading, according to Gray, in his "Field, Forest, and Garden Botany") in open, waste woodlands, and often in badly cultivated fields. It seems to have its northeasterly limit in New York, whence it extends across the continent to Nebraska, down to Arkansas, and from there eastward to Florida, thus making a home for itself over a vast extent of territory. We know of no attempt to cultivate it, not even in England, where so much enterprise is shown in getting together pretty flowering things. It is generally in bloom in July and August, and makes a branching stem about two feet high. Our plate, it will be seen, represents only a portion of the panicle.