I had no interest in gardening when I came to Salt Lake City.
My husband and I lived for years in a condo on Wasatch Drive. Behind us was green space, and we were happy to let the mountain landscape for us. Zero water, zero cost, zero work. Let the wild plants do their job, we said.
Little did we know the mountain was in the thrall of a villain that kills all in its path. It scars earth and flesh alike. It can blind children. And it was carpeting our backyard.
We first discovered this Force of Evil in 2010, during a countywide awareness campaign. The waxy, stemmy succulent had been used in landscapes as a drought-tolerant ground cover — but it spreads prolifically and was invading the Wasatch foothills. I beelined to our slope and began pulling the weeds obsessively.
It was hard; the long taproots had wedged themselves between boulders, and I frequently fell backward while pulling them, whacking my head on rocks.
Then came the burns.
My hands, arms and face puffed up, red and hot. The caustic sap of the myrtle spurge vindictively spattered onto my skin as I ripped it out of the ground.
After a few days, we had a full carload of demon plants to dispose of — and a massive swath of naked dirt looming above our house.
We frantically plopped a bunch of baby native plants onto our mudslide-to-be. About two-thirds of them died in the summer heat. Turns out it’s hard for even well-adapted plants to grow on a steep slope — and it’s instructive that spurge is able to thrive in seemingly impossible sites. How can other plants compete with that? No wonder it’s taking over whole mountainsides.
The next spring, baby sages and rabbitbushes immediately began to emerge where we had removed the spurge. A colony of milkvetch filled in some bare ground with silvery foliage and dark pink flowers. Broom snakeweed popped up in graceful plumes. I got better at gardening and kept some plants alive.
Then a carpet of green sprouts began to darken the ground. I plucked some out, and white sap dribbled onto my fingers.
The spurge was back!
But it was easier to pull the sprouts. We cleared them out and kept pulling the mature spurge, broadening the perimeter of our attack. We added herbicide to our arsenal, which tripled our efficiency. Each summer we heard the pop-pop-pop of the spurge seedheads bursting on the hill behind our yard and knew they were shooting ever more progeny at us. But each year the native plants grew bigger, and the new generations of spurge sprouts were thinner.
After about four years, the sprouts all but stopped appearing in the area we first had cleared.
Meanwhile, I became addicted to gardening. As the slope became more arrayed in the colors and textures of my plants, it also came alive with buzzing and chirping. A trio of baby owls learned to fly in our yard. Peregrine falcons perched on the nearest utility pole. Our garden won a Habitat Hero award from the Audubon Society, and pictures of it appeared on a plant nursery’s ads.
My family moved out of that condo in 2016. I recently visited the old neighborhood and saw those devilish neon yellow blossoms pouring down yards that were spurge-free just two years ago. It was creeping again into my old backyard. It also had escaped its domain on the west face of the mountain and thoroughly infested slopes and drainages to the south.
I kind of want to hate everyone who doesn’t care how bad this is for our mountains. I want to hate my old neighbors. I want to hate the county for not vigorously enforcing its ban and the state for not even listing it as a noxious weed until recently.
But the truth is a lot of people don’t know about this threat. Hardly any of my conservation-minded friends think or talk about myrtle spurge. I don’t know if they’d even pull it from their yards if it were there.
It makes all that work — the blisters, the head wounds — feel like a waste.
But I wouldn’t take it back. Now I have proof that myrtle spurge can be beaten with diligence. There were years when almost no spurge sprouted on my property, even with a mob of seed-spraying invaders close by.
It would have been much easier to deal with this problem earlier. But we can’t say it’s impossible now.
It’s also not too late to at least internalize the Lesson of the Spurge: We need to clean up our messes as soon as we know about them.
Tips for ridding your property of myrtle spurge
- Wear pants and long sleeves, as well as protective eyewear, as you pull, to shield yourself from the plant’s caustic sap.
- Bag up spurge and throw it in the garbage — NOT green waste bins. That can spread the weed in compost.
- Whether you pull the weeds or spray them with herbicide, you will need to keep up with newly sprouting spurge seeds for a couple of years.
- If your property is adjacent to spurge infestations, you can shield your site from the yearly sprays of exploding seedheads by planting your perimeter with native shrubs and large bunchgrasses. Sage, rabbitbush, fourwing saltbush, purshia, mountain mahogany, Apache plume, oakleaf sumac, basin wild rye and alkali sacaton can give you a nice mix of colors and textures.