Invasive plant popping back up in Okanagan garden centres can cause boils, blisters and temporary blindness

Toxic plant pops up in stores

Casey Richardson

The Okanagan and Similkameen Invasive Species Society (OASISS) is asking residents to pay attention to what plants they pick up from the garden centre after a toxic species has started to pop up for sale.

The perennial plant myrtle spurge, also known as "donkey tail," has been widely used as a plant in rock gardens, but contains a milky sap that can be harmful to humans and animals.

“It's got spiral-shaped, bluey green leaves, it looks like a succulent. But unfortunately, it's also invasive, and it's toxic,” said Lisa Scott, executive director for OASISS.

“The milky juice inside it is toxic. If it gets on your skin, it can cause blisters, swelling, and very painful areas that get really red. But the other concern is it can actually get into your eyes and cause blindness.”

The evergreen perennial grows between 10 to 15 cm tall, with a low, spreading mound on the ground. When it blooms, the flowers are inconspicuous, surrounded by yellow-green flower-like bracts.

It spreads by seeds, which actually explode at maturity and shoot the seeds up to five meters away from the plant.

“Additionally, the plant spreads by its roots and creates new plants that way as well. So it's very aggressive in our gardens, it'll outcompete other plants. And in nature, it will also play a competitive role. We have seen it spread into adjacent grasslands areas,” Scott said.

“We've been educating the public for quite a few years about this invasive plant. We haven't seen it for sale in garden centres [for a while], but it popped up again this year.”

The organization was notified by local residents after taking notice of the plant being sold at multiple garden centres.

“I was really surprised and disappointed to see this plant once again for sale in garden centres. I think what it speaks to is a need for us to do even more education and more promotion for people to be plant-wise. And what that means is just because plants are for sale at a nursery in a garden centre, it doesn't mean that they aren't invasive,” Scott added.

“Unfortunately, we lack strong legislation in British Columbia for ornamental plants that are invasive. So the more that we can be aware as residents as gardeners and take our own action by finding alternative plants for our rock gardens, for our dry land sites, spreading the word, spreading the message to our neighbours, our friends throughout our community and also encouraging garden centres to not carry invasive plants.”

Scott said she was extremely appreciative of how quickly the stores pulled the plants from their shelves once they became aware of it.

“Because this is not a mandatory requirement to remove these plants from their store shelves. But they did it quite readily once they were spoken with by members of the public as well as myself,” she added.

Their team will also be working with garden centres next fall when they're putting in their orders for the spring to avoid any invasive or toxic species.

“We'll be sharing our lists so that they can be more aware of it themselves and that they speak with their suppliers to do their best to ensure that they aren't putting invasive plants that are going to be problematic on their shelves.”

As the plant grows all up and down the Okanagan Valley, residents are urged to watch out and be cautious. Scott said there are cases in the Okanagan Similkameen in both adults and children that have been impacted by the toxins from this plant.

Animals can also have a reaction on their skin if they come in contact with the sap and if ingested, can become quite ill and see digestive issues.

OASISS recommends gloves, long sleeves and eye protection, and thoroughly washing hands after removing before touching your face.

Dig out the area, remove as much of the root system as possible, and replace the plant with a non-invasive plant like native perennial bunch grasses or sedums, both great alternatives that will prevent the re-establishment of the myrtle spurge.

The plants should also be disposed of at a landfill, not in compost bins, to prevent further spread.

OASISS has had several Penticton-area kids in the past with unfortunate run-ins with the plant, experiencing painful boils on their skin.

Since the society is well aware of the plant, new sightings do not need to be reported.

Find out more about spotting and removing invasive plant species in the Okanagan and Similkameen online here

More Penticton News