Cochise County Plants: Ragged Nettlespurge, Jatropha Macrorhiza


Of all the plants on our Cochise County acreage, the Jatropha macrorhiza (ragged nettlespurge) presented us with the greatest mish-mash of misinformation we’ve ever encountered in the botanical field. When we first saw the plants bouncing up behind our camp trailer after the first monsoon rains of 2009 came, they scared us. I remarked to my wife, “Looks a bit like marijuana, doesn’t it?” She agreed–not that we were qualified to judge; the only thing we knew about the appearance of that plant was the image of five-lobed, serrated leaves available in pictures everywhere.

We certainly didn’t want the feds dropping by to bust us for raising an illegal crop (never mind that it was simply growing wild, not cultivated) so we called a local citizen we knew possessed the expertise to identify pot on the spot. “No,” he chuckled, “relax. That’s not marijuana. It’s jimson weed.”

Turned out he might have known his mary jane, but he most certainly did not know his jimson weed. However, the misidentification was not discovered until a few minutes ago, five years after the mistake was made. I finally got around to snapping a few photos of this year’s batch of mystery weed with the idea of writing about it…but calling up jimson weed on Google Images made it instantly clear our little botanical was nothing of the sort. Neither the flowers nor the leaves resemble jimson weed even a little bit.

It took another couple of hours, digging around on the Net, to pin the shrub down. Ragged nettlespurge photos online looked exactly like the ones I’d taken–except that the flower clusters on ours look a whole lot more robust and vibrant than most of the pics already out there.

So much for testimony fom the “experts”.

Ragged nettlespurge, Jatropha macrorhiza, growing on our southern Cochise County, Arizona acreage.

Ragged nettlespurge, Jatropha macrorhiza, growing on our southern Cochise County, Arizona acreage.

In a way, even though our informant was wrong, he was still almost right. Jimson weed is poisonous, though some hardcore get-high addicts do make a tea from the leaves to get high, never mind the long term consequences…and Jatropha macrorhiza
is also poisonous. The poison the plant (ragged nettlespurge) contains is called curcin, apparently a close relative of the well known poison ricin. Neither compound (curcin or ricin) is something you want to ingest.

Ah. The leaves. You may not think they look anything like marijuana leaves, but hey. The leaves do sometimes have five lobes, though many of ours have six or even seven. The literature states they can have “from five to seven” lobes.

Leaves of the ragged nettlespurge are sharply serrated and have from five to seven lobes.

Leaves of the ragged nettlespurge are sharply serrated and have from five to seven lobes.

These shrubs generally top out around two feet in height on our property, though an occasional monster will make it to almost three feet and quite a few never reach the two foot mark. They seem to like us personally, which is interesting. Most of the plants we’ve seen in the area grow in fairly close proximity to our dwelling, seldom more than 100 feet away. (No doubt the “experts” will poo-poo that, but that’s the way it seems so far.)

Their flowers are without question their most remarkable feature. Five petals, bright pink at the center and fading to almost pure white at the outer tips with brilliant yellow stamens. We see a few single blossoms here and there, but most of them bloom in sociable clusters. Curiously, we’ve seen few bees so far this year, but at least one red and black beetle was photographed with its head happily down in where the nectar grows.

Ragged nettlespurge flowers in full bloom.

Ragged nettlespurge flowers in full bloom.

Closer up, you can see the red and black beetle (lower left) happily head-diving down into the center of the flower.

Closer up, you can see the red and black beetle (lower left) happily head-diving down into the center of the flower.

Most of the ragged nettlespurge plant is a dusty green, but the stem portions that lead up to the flowers sport a deep red color.

Ignoring the green motif on the rest of the plant, ragged nettlespurge stem portions leading to flowers show a deep red color.

Ignoring the green motif on the rest of the plant, ragged nettlespurge stem portions leading to flowers show a deep red color.

There was one item in the current identification guides that had me scratching my head for a while. They all list ragged nettlespurge as an annual–yet ours are very obviously perennials, disappearing completely each winter and popping up again when the July rains hit. What the–?!

Then I happened to stumble across one website that said some shrubs (not necessarily ragged nettlespurge, but whatever) will act as perennials in cooler climates but act as annuals where the climate is warmer and they can grow faster, completing a life cycle in a single season. Another website says some annuals are “self seeding” and will produce new plants from scratch every spring–which fits our local ragged nettlespurge, so maybe…. Curiously, there are several websites offering advice for those who wish to cultivate Jatropha macrorhiza as a landscape item. None of the tips made any sense to me–avoiding direct sunlight, for instance, when our wild specimens all grow dead center under the blazing southern Arizona sun, year in, year out–but they’re out there if your passion is a garden full of poisonous plants with pretty flowers.

13 thoughts on “Cochise County Plants: Ragged Nettlespurge, Jatropha Macrorhiza

  1. Rodger told me about these. He said they were extremely poisonous but really pretty. I have a bunch of them growing and they all choose full sun to shine.

  2. Good for Rodger; it never hurts to know your local plants. Not that I do; there have to be at least a couple of dozen species on our place about which I have no clue…yet, anyway.

  3. Not sure about the scent, Sha. They could have something very mild; I’ve never stuck my nose into them. They’re definitely not massively fragrant like roses, though.

  4. ragged nettlespurge is a perennial. It does die back to the ground in the winter in
    Cochise County. However, like many desert plants, it has a large tuber like root
    which grows larger with each successive year it lives. I have seen tubers that weigh close to five pounds. It is from this very large, starchy mass that the plant
    sends its new growth as a potato might when the soil temperature and moisture
    is favourable. The plant is being researched for , with some preliminary success,
    anti-cancer compounds.

  5. Thank you for your interesting and entertaining article. Nice photos of the plant!

    Thank you for the interesting and entertaining article. Nice photos! I recently came across Jatropha macrorhiza in southern New Mexico – flowers and stems much lighter in color and much spinier leaves. Looking at the online photos, there does seem to be a fair bit of variance – regional differences? subspecies?

    Also, it was my impression from our guide that the root stock may not leaf out if conditions aren’t favorable. Have you ever tried to dig yours up to check the roots?

    Thanks again for posting.

  6. You’re welcome, Kelly, and thanks for posting. No, I never did try to dig ours up to check the roots. Thought about it, but we basically set the Border Fort up to interfere with the natural setting as little as possible. Even managed to find a homesite spot on open clay that didn’t require any vegetation removal. Sufficient knockdown for wildfire protection, yes, but most of that was new growth that had taken advantage after we we’d been living there a while.

  7. Very cool! I bet you have seen some interesting changes over the years.

    I was recently introduced to Jatropha macrorhiza (ragged nettlespurge seems like such an undignified name for such an interesting looking plant) and was trying to learn more about it when I came across your site. The plant I saw had much paler flowers. Very powerful native bee attractant. Thanks again, Kelly

  8. You’re welcome, Kelly, and yes, we have seen some interesting changes over the years. Thanks for commenting.

  9. Incredible – on the off chance you still see this, I have been wanting an example of this native wildflower for quite some time. Is there a good population you have seen elsewhere? I would love to harvest seeds in season next year, as I’d like to not remove them from their habitat.

  10. J, Fred passed on a few months ago. Unfortunately, you will not get an answer from him. I have them in my yard, if that helps. They seem to grow along the edge of my driveway and the road. I think they like being along an area that has been scraped. That means if you drive along the dirt roads in the season, you will probably find one.

  11. Condolences to your family and all involved, I’m sure Fred was a wonderful person.

    I appreciate the information, if you don’t mind, one last. I understand they also occur around the Patagonia/Helvetia area as well, would you say this plant is common in Cochise?

    Thank you in advance, and best wishes.

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