I saw this familiar plant in October in the garden of my mother’s apartment complex in Istanbul. The gardener had allowed the weeds to take over the flower beds at a time when winter was around the corner. With delight I photographed it and discovered some lovely details about it. I had no hope of finding out its name any time soon which meant that I would not be able to write about it.
Back in Montreal in April (2014), getting ready to fly back to Istanbul once again, I received the promotional spring copy of the Plaisir de Vivre magazine in the mail. There was an article titled Le Vert Galant/Seed Savior about the Quebec artist Patrice Fortier who grows vegetables in his garden in Kamouraska by the St. Laurent River. Fortier had taken the picture of the top of a sun spurge protruding through the leaves of another plant in his garden.
A plant native to Europe, northern Africa and most of Asia was found in Quebec. The binomial name for it is Euphorbia helioscopia. To unfamiliar eyes it may seem like a very nondescript weed. When you look closely, like all plants, it is a marvel of nature. E. helioscopia belongs to the genus Euphorbia of the family Euphorbiaceae, and characteristically has milky juice and small flowers with no petals or sepals. The three compartment seed pods protrude from the side of the flowers and they out grow them in size.
E. helioscopia is an annual plant that grows in arable or disturbed land. It grows to 10–50 cm tall, with a single, erect, hairless stem, branching toward the top. The leaves are oval, broadest near the tip, 1.5–3 cm long. The flowers are small, yellow-green and flowering lasts from mid spring to early fall.
The botanical name Euphorbia derives from Euphorbus, the Greek physician of King Juba II of Numidia, a Berber-Libyan kingdom in North Africa. 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. Botanist and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus assigned the name Euphorbia to the entire genus in the physician's honor (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euphorbia).
The name helioscopia comes from the Ancient Greek helios, ’sun’ and skopein, ’to watch’: sunwatcher. When the plant is observed, it can be seen that it turns its stems towards the sun.
The members of the family and genus are commonly referred to as spurges. The word derives from the Middle English/Old French espurge, ‘to purge’, based on the use of the plant's sap as a purgative.
Sun spurge in April 2014
The milky sap of spurges called ‘latex’ evolved as a deterrent to herbivores. In contact with the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose and mouth, the latex can produce a painful inflammation.
I found out recently that Mexican jumping beans are the seed pods of the shrub Sebastiania pavoniana. The 'beans' are inhabited by the larva of a small moth, Cydia deshaisiana. The ‘bean’, usually tan to brown in color, ‘jumps’ when heated, because the larva spasms in an attempt to roll the seed to a cooler environment to avoid dehydration and consequent death. However, they are not related to actual beans, but rather to spurges (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mexican_jumping_bean).
On a road trip through New Mexico and Arizona in the summer of 1997 I had a jumping bean. I inadvertently left my jumping bean in the sun and it stopped jumping.