The common name "spurge" derives from the Middle English/Old French espurge ("to purge"), due to the use of the plants sap as a purgative.
The botanical name Euphorbia derives from Euphorbus, the Greek physician of king Juba II of Numidia (52–50 BC – 23 AD), who married the daughter of Anthony and Cleopatra. He wrote that one of the cactus-like Euphorbias was a powerful laxative. In 12 B.C., Juba named this plant after his physician Euphorbus in response to Augustus Caesar dedicating a statue to Antonius Musa, his own personal physician. Botanist and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus assigned the name Euphorbia to the entire genus in the physicians honor.
Like all members of the family Euphorbiaceae, all spurges have unisexual flowers. In Euphorbia these are greatly reduced and grouped into pseudanthia called cyathia. The majority of species are monoecious (bearing male and female flowers on the same plant), although some are dioecious with male and female flowers occurring on different plants. It is not unusual for the central cyathia of a cyme to be purely male, and for lateral cyathia to carry both sexes. Sometimes young plants or those growing under unfavorable conditions are male only, and only produce female flowers in the cyathia with maturity or as growing conditions improve. The bracts are often leaf-like, sometimes brightly coloured and attractive, sometimes reduced to tiny scales. The fruits are three (rarely two) compartment capsules, sometimes fleshy but almost always ripening to a woody container that then splits open (explosively, see explosive dehiscence). The seeds are 4-angled, oval or spherical, and in some species have a caruncle.
In the genus Euphorbia, succulence in the species has often evolved divergently and to differing degrees. Sometimes it is difficult to decide, and it is a question of interpretation, whether or not a species is really succulent or "only" xerophytic. In some cases, especially with geophytes, plants closely related to the succulents are normal herbs. About 850 species are succulent in the strictest sense. If one includes slightly succulent and xerophytic species, this figure rises to about 1000, representing about 45% of all Euphorbia species.
The milky sap of spurges (called "latex") evolved as a deterrent to herbivores. It is white and colorless when dry, except in E. abdelkuri, where it is yellow. The pressurized sap seeps from the slightest wound and congeals after a few minutes in air. The specific composition of diterpene or triterpene esters varies, and determines how caustic and irritating a particular species is. In contact with mucous membranes (eyes, nose, mouth), the latex can produce extremely painful inflammation. Therefore, spurges should be handled with caution and kept away from children and pets. Latex on skin should be washed off immediately and thoroughly. Congealed latex is insoluble in water, but can be removed with an emulsifier like milk or soap. A physician should be consulted if inflammation occurs, as severe eye damage including permanent blindness may result from exposure to the sap. When large succulent spurges in a greenhouse are cut, vapours can cause irritation to the eyes and throat several metres away. Precautions, including sufficient ventilation, are required.
According to recent studies of DNA sequence data, most of the smaller "satellite genera" around the huge genus Euphorbia nest deep within the latter. Consequently these taxa, namely the never generally accepted genus Chamaesyce as well as the smaller genera Cubanthus, Elaeophorbia, Endadenium, Monadenium, Synadenium and Pedilanthus were transferred to Euphorbia. The entire subtribe Euphorbiinae now consists solely of the genus Euphorbia.
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