This large plant family, comprising some 5000 species in 300 genera, is of cosmopolitan distribution except for polar regions. Few species have a very wide range, the largest and most wide-ranging genus being Euphorbia L.
Several species are grown commercially. The latex of Hevea brasiliensis Müll.Arg. provides the raw material from which rubber is manufactured; the seeds of Croton tiglium L. are the source of croton oil, previously a medicinal item, but lately a source of useful pharmacologically active compounds; the seeds of Vernicia fordii Airy Shaw provide tung oil. The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima Willd.), various Acalypha L. species, and the garden croton (Codiaeum variegatum Blume var pictum Müll.Arg.) are grown for the houseplant trade as are a number of cactiform succulent Euphorbia L. species such as Euphorbia milii Des Moul. (the crown of thorns) and Euphorbia tirucalli L. (the pencil tree).
A number of species feature in local folk medicine, many being used for their purgative properties or as topically applied wart removers (Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk 1962, Morton 1981, etc.). These activities (and also piscicidal activity) are usually associated with the presence of tigliane, ingenane, or daphnane polyol esters. Perhaps the only product currently used in Western medicine is castor oil derived from the seeds of Ricinus communis L. Its purgative action is associated with its content of ricinoleic acid glycerides (Wade 1977). The oil also finds use in the manufacture of certain cosmetics. The asthma plant (Chamaesyce hirta Millsp., syn. Euphorbia hirta L.) has found use as a herbal remedy for the treatment of asthma and coughs (Todd 1967).
Some members of this family are stinging nettles, and can cause skin irritation as a result of contact with their stinging hairs. A far greater number of species are known to possess an irritant and purgative sap, latex, or seed oil, the activity being associated with the presence of diterpenoid esters based on the tigliane, ingenane, and daphnane hydrocarbon skeletons. A few species that are often cultivated as house plants have contact allergenic properties, but the compounds responsible for this property have not been identified. The spines of many cactiform species of the genus Euphorbia L. in particular are capable of producing mechanical injury.
- Acalypha L.
- Copper Leaf, Three-Seeded Mercury
About 450 species are found in tropical and sub-tropical regions. Several are grown as houseplants for their decorative foliage.
- Acalypha hispida Burm.f.
- Chenille Plant, Redhot Cat-Tail, Philippine Medusa
Souder (1963) lists this species among spurges that cause an acute dermatitis on contact with their sap or latex.
- Acalypha indica L.
- Hierba del Cancer, Indian Nettle
Souder (1963) lists this species among spurges that cause an acute dermatitis on contact with their sap or latex. Smitinand & Scheible (1966) note that this species causes irritation of the skin, ascribing the action to hydrocyanic acid in the hairs of the leaves and stems. Uphof (1959) records that Acalypha indica has been used as a gastrointestinal irritant, and that large doses are emetic.
- Acalypha pruriens Nees & Mart.
The specific epithet suggests that the plant can produce itching.
- Acalypha virginica L.
Pammel (1911) lists this species as being diuretic and irritant.
- Acalypha wilkesiana Müll.Arg.
- Beefsteak Plant, Fire Dragon Plant, Jacob's Coat, Match-Me-If-You-Can
Souder (1963) lists this species among spurges that cause an acute dermatitis on contact with their sap or latex. To reduce a fever, the large leafy branches have been wrapped around the patient to induce perspiration through the rubefacient action of their leaves (Morton 1981).
- Acidoton Sw.
Six species are found in the West Indies, Central America, and northern tropical South America. Stinging hairs are found in members of this genus (Thurston & Lersten 1969).
- Acidoton microphyllus Urban
This species can produce dermatitis (Pardo-Castello 1923).
- Acidoton urens Sw.
- (syns Durandeeldea urens Kuntze)
- Mountain Cowitch, Smooth-Leaved Cowitch
Pardo-Castello (1923) notes that this species can produce dermatitis. Wimmer (1926) and von Reis Altschul (1973) refer to its stinging hairs.
- Agrostistachys Dalz.
Eight or nine species are found from India and Sri Lanka to western Malaysia.
Small black ants, which habitually make their nests on the stems among the bases of the leaves, fiercely resent interference with their abodes (Corner 1952). Such plants may be described as super-nettles if the bites and/or stings of the ants elicit a pseudophytodermatitis (Schmidt 1985).
- Aleurites J.R.Forst. & G.Forst.
According to Airy Shaw (1966), this genus should now be regarded as being monotypic. Aleurites moluccana Willd. occurs in tropical Asia, Malaysia, and the Pacific region. Other taxa previously regarded as Aleurites species have been moved to the genera Reutealis Airy Shaw and Vernicia Lour.
- Aleurites moluccana Willd.
- (syns Aleurites triloba J.R.Forst. & G.Forst., Jatropha moluccana L.)
- Candle Nut Tree, Indian Walnut, Buah Keras, Kemiri, Kembiri
The nut oil, known as candlenut oil or lumbang oil, is used as a rubefacient (Burkill 1935). Souder (1963) lists this species among spurges that cause an acute dermatitis on contact with their sap or latex.
- Anthostema aubryanum Baill.
The latex is very caustic and can cause temporary blindness (Irvine 1961).
- Anthostema senegalensis Juss.
The latex is strongly caustic and dangerous to the eyes (Irvine 1961).
- Antidesma L.
- (syn. Stilago L.)
This genus has been moved by some authorities from the Euphorbiaceae to its own family, the Stilaginaceae, but is currently considered to be part of the Euphorbiaceae. It comprises some 170 species found in Old World tropical and sub-tropical regions (Webster 1975, Mabberley 1997).
- Antidesma bunius Spreng.
- Bignay, Buni, Berunai
Souder (1963) lists this species among spurges that cause an acute dermatitis on contact with their sap or latex. Burkill (1935) notes that the fruit and young leaves are not poisonous and are eaten.
- Ateramnus lucidus Rothm.
- (syn. Gymnanthes lucida Sw.)
- Crab Bush, False Lignum-Vitae
References in the literature to this species having toxic milky sap must be due to confusion of this tree with the closely related Hippomane mancinella L. (Morton 1981).
- Baliospermum axillare Blume
- (syns Baliospermum montanum Müll.Arg., Jatropha montana Willd.)
- Jungle Jamalgota
The leaves and the oil from the seeds are irritant (Behl et al. 1966) and rubefacient (Nadkarni 1976). The poisonous seeds and their oil are drastic purgatives (Chopra & Badhwar 1940), used in India instead of the seeds and oil from Croton tiglium L. (Burkill 1935).
Ogura et al. (1978) reported the presence of montanin (a daphnane polyol ester), baliospermin, and other tigliane polyol esters in Baliospermum montanum.
- Caperonia palustris A. St. Hil.
- (syns Croton palustris L., Argythamnia palustris Kuntze)
According to a note found on an herbarium specimen, this species has stinging hairs (von Reis Altschul 1973).
- Carumbium acuminatum Müll.Arg.
- (syn. Homalanthus acuminatus Pax)
The wood dust is irritating to the nose and throat (Uhe 1974).
- Carumbium nutans Müll.Arg.
- (syn. Homalanthus nutans Guill.)
The plant is irritant and poisonous (Uhe 1974). The leaves have been used as a fish poison in the Solomon Islands (von Reis Altschul 1973).
- Carumbium populneum Müll.Arg.
- (syn. Homalanthus populneus Pax)
The plant has been used as a fish poison in the Philippines (von Reis Altschul 1973).