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Invasive, toxic plant sends two Utah preschoolers to the emergency room

As myrtle spurge spreads through Utah’s foothills, its caustic sap can injure and sicken curious kids.

(Photo courtesy of Monica Stapley) Evie Stapley, 4, was taken to the emergency room after her eyelids swelled almost shut and she developed a blistering rash. Initially diagnosed as a virus, the inflammation was due to contact with the caustic sap of myrtle spurge, an invasive plant she discovered on a preschool nature walk in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 30, 2021. Here she is shown while the reaction was underway, at left, and before she had contact with the plant, at right.

Two preschoolers ended up in the emergency room, and several others had allergic reactions, after they picked a poisonous, invasive weed during a class nature walk last week in Salt Lake City.

The plant, myrtle spurge, has long been the bane of conservationists as it has escaped Utah’s gardens and carpeted wildlands in the foothills of the Wasatch Front.

It also has a caustic sap that causes rashes, inflammation and, in some cases, blindness.

Monica Stapley didn’t know that when her daughter appeared after school on the afternoon of March 30 with unusually rosy cheeks and a bag of plants she collected during a scavenger hunt around her preschool’s building. During the drive home, 4-year-old Evie complained that her eyes hurt, and Stapley gave her some eye drops.

“At first I thought it was a sunburn,” Stapley said.

But that night, Evie’s eyelids were swelling and she was in tears from the pain, Stapley said.

Stapley rushed Evie to the emergency room, where Evie’s symptoms left four different doctors perplexed. They sent the family home at 2 a.m., saying it might be a virus. But the next morning Evie’s whole face was swollen, and blisters began to appear on her face and hands.

That’s when Stapley posted a picture of Evie’s scavenger hunt treasures in a local gardening group on Facebook. Readers immediately identified the culprit in several small clusters of yellow flowers over rubbery, succulent stems and leaves: Myrtle spurge.

(Photo courtesy of Monica Stapley) Evie Stapley, 4, was taken to the emergency room after her eyelids swelled almost shut and she developed a blistering rash. Initially diagnosed as a virus, the inflammation was due to contact with the caustic sap of myrtle spurge, an invasive plant she discovered on a preschool nature hunt in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 30, 2021.

When parents of other students in the class were alerted to the plant, Stapley said she learned that another child was taken to the emergency room with similar symptoms, and several other children had less serious reactions. The school is removing the plant, which had been a popular garden plant for its ornamental value and drought tolerance until 2007, when it was classified as a noxious weed in Salt Lake County — and later across Utah — and its sale was banned.

Myrtle spurge also is banned in Colorado and Oregon, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The plant — which is native to southeastern Europe, along the Mediterranean from Italy to Turkey — also has been found in California, Idaho, New Mexico, Washington, Wisconsin and the Canadian province of Ontario, the USDA reports.

Many homeowners who already have the plant don’t know that it is invasive, or that it can cause severe reactions, said Tony Frates, conservation co-chair of the Utah Native Plants Society. In response to Stapley’s query on Facebook, several parents posted images of rashes their families had developed because of myrtle spurge, and accounts of children smearing the milky sap over their skin because it looked like lotion.

On Friday, Evie still had “huge, tender blisters on her fingers” and sore, broken blisters on her face — and was feeling a bit sick from the medication she received when Stapley returned to the doctor’s office after identifying the cause of the rash.

(Photo courtesy of Monica Stapley) Evie Stapley, 4, was taken to the emergency room after her eyelids swelled almost shut and she developed a blistering rash. Initially diagnosed as a virus, the inflammation was due to contact with the caustic sap of myrtle spurge, an invasive plant she discovered on a preschool nature walk in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 30, 2021. Although one of the injuries on her face is from an unrelated tumble, the rash from the plant caused swelling and pain for days.

“We need a lot more public education about this plant, considering that none of the teachers and none of the ER doctors or nurses suspected this,” Stapley said. “I have nothing but respect for the teachers, they love these kids like their own, and would never intentionally put them in harm’s way. They just did not know. They were only gathering items in landscaped areas near their building.”

Eliminating the plant altogether is the best solution, Frates said. But people are likely to encounter it more and more frequently as it spreads to more and more corners of the foothills, out-competing other, native plants.

“The fact that they are poisonous and/or can hurt us isn’t why they are ‘bad’ — i.e. invasive and designated noxious. It is just something that we need to be aware of,” Frates said. He noted that many poisonous plants are also native, such as poison ivy and death camas, which also grow in the Wasatch foothills.

“The difference is that plants like myrtle spurge grow into monocultures that ultimately decrease biodiversity as they consume habitat and ‘steal’ pollinator resources that the native flora depends on, and thereby decreases biodiversity,” Frates said. “Less biodiversity means a less healthy, resilient world. Because they didn’t evolve in balance with the plants found here naturally, they are out of control without the normal checks and balances found in healthy ecosystems.”

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