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Randy's Ramblings: We need a surge against leafy spurge

Leafy spurge grows on a slope above I-94 in Hudson.

I didn't know what leafy spurge was until Dolly Qualls told me about it two summers ago. Now I see the lime invader everywhere.

It blankets a slope on the north side of I-94, east of the 11th Street bridge.

It's sprinkled in the ditches along Krattley Lane, where I go walking.

Heck, it's sneaking up the hill from the drainage pond behind our house, threatening to choke the irises, black-eyed Susans and day lilies in the small perennial garden at the edge of the lawn.

Alarmed by what I saw -- and easily distracted -- I flew into an impulsive defensive action while out watering the flowers the other day.

I grabbed the intruders by their stems with my bare hands and, trying to rip them from the ground, paid a price for it. Many of the surprisingly weak stems broke, leaking a milky liquid on my hands.

By the time I returned to the house, a watery blister had sprouted on my right pinky. There's still a little red spot there.

To be honest, I thought Dolly was being an alarmist when she contacted the Star-Observer about what she said was a disturbing invasion of noxious weeds in the Hudson area.

She took me on a tour of the city and the town of Hudson on a hot June afternoon, pointing out the patches of leafy spurge, spotted knapweed and musk thistle.

The retired Hudson High School home economics teacher was on an educational campaign to get property owners and local governments to eradicate the weeds.

She educated me, but I'm afraid the war on weeds isn't going so well. The leafy spurge is winning.

The invasive exotic from Eurasia is one of three plants on the state's list of noxious weeds that landowners are supposed to eliminate from their property.

It's a tough and determined invader.

Leafy spurge's woody, tough roots can reach depths of up to 15 feet and spread 35 feet laterally, according to an online Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources fact sheet about the weed (

It reproduces from both its roots and seed dispersal.

When its roots are cut, they produce buds that grow into new plants. And if the foliage of the plant is destroyed, the roots regenerate new shoots.

It spreads its seed through literal explosions of the seed capsule. The seed is thrown distances of up 15 feet and has a high germination rate.

When it's introduced to an area, some people think the yellowish-green, petal-like bracts of the plant are pretty. But there's a lot to dislike about leafy spurge.

"These are not pretty flowers. These are the zebra mussels of the earth," says Dolly.

The plant's reproductive capability, coupled with its durability and lack of natural predators, allows it to take over a landscape, displacing more desirable vegetation.

The weed is believed to be allelopathic, meaning it releases a chemical substance that causes harm to other plants.

In natural areas, leafy spurge reduces species diversity and wildlife habitat, the DNR's online fact sheet says. Farmers and ranchers dislike it because it reduces the productivity of grazing land by 50 to 75 percent.

If that isn't enough reason to declare war on the pest, consider this: its milky sap can cause serious skin irritation, and blindness if rubbed in the eyes.

The experts warn you to wear gloves when handling leafy spurge. I discovered the need for them the hard way.

Getting rid of leafy spurge isn't easy, but there are some things you can do.

North Dakota State University recommends getting some sheep or goats to eat and control it.

I doubt I'll be able to employ that method. The village of North Hudson owns the land around the pond behind my house. I doubt the village board would grant a request to make it rangeland.

Biological controls have been tried in western states. The release of beetles in Montana reportedly reduced the spurge population by up to 90 percent in test areas.

I get nervous when scientists talk about unleashing swarms of bugs to solve a problem. Those Asiatic lady beetles that cover the sunny sides of buildings in the fall -- and find their way inside -- come to mind.

A combination of mechanical (or hand) and chemical controls is the best way for most of us to combat the spurge.

Mowing and hand-pulling won't kill the plant, but it will slow its advance if it's done in June - before the seed heads germinate and pop. The mowing or hand-pulling should be done each time the plants re-sprout to prevent seed production.

The application of an herbicide, combined with cutting, is the most effective way to beat back an advance of leafy spurge.

I'm not going to pretend to know anything about herbicides. The most I can say is that the literature on managing spurge offers a variety of suggestions on what to use.

St. Croix County UW-Extension Ag Agent Lee Milligan has co-authored a paper on controlling Wisconsin's noxious weeds, including leafy spurge. I recommend contacting him for advice on what herbicide to use. You can reach Milligan by e-mail at or by phone at (715) 684-3301.

Persistence is the key to winning the war against leafy spurge, according to Dolly.

"This isn't a one-shot deal like pulling carrots," she says.

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

(715) 426-1066