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Lowly gopher weed contains oil harvest

October 23, 1980

  • By Sara Terry Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

There’s new oil being tapped in weed- cluttered acres of the Southwest, but it’s not being drilled. It’s being grown.m The key is hydrocarbons — the organic compound found in crude oil but which nature also produces in certain plants that are now being seriously considered as a potential source of energy for an oil-thirsty world.

Several plants, including the copaiba tree found in Brazil and the jojoba bean, are known to produce a milky sap from which oil can be extracted. But the plant drawing the widest scientific scrutiny these dayss is gopherweed — a rangy, dark green weed with long spear-shaped leaves that grows wild in parts of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and California.

Already, researchers in the Office of Arid Land Studies at the Universtiy of Arizona — aided by a $2 million grant from a small Texas oil company — have found they can produce nine barrels of oil from one acre of gopherweed.

While that may not sound like much, Dr. Timothy Peoples, who heads the agricultural section of the university project, estimates that within a few years that yield can be more than doubled to 20 barrels an acre.

At that rate, he says, “gopheroil” could be put on the market at $20 a barrel — well below the $32 now being fetched for a barrel of crude oil, and within 10 to 15 years, Dr. Peoples predicts, 10 percent of the nation’s energy needs — approximately 800 million barrels of oil — could be supplied by gopherweed grown on “petroleum plantations.”

Although the oil crunch has helped nudge gopherweed into the energy spotlight , the first known research on Euphorbia lathyrism as an alternative fuel was actually carried out by the Italians during World War II.

Work was abandoned at the close of the war and was not picked up again until the gasoline crisis of 1974, when Melvin Calvin, a Nobel-prize-winning professor at the University of California, Berkeley, began research of his own.

Today, the US Department of Energy has earmarked only $250,000 for gopherweed research in the form of a grant won by Dr. Calvin. But rising oil prices have made gopherweed appear so viable that a number of universities and independent researchers have begun experimenting with the plant.

The most extensive work is carried on at the University of Arizona, where researchers expect the current project will continue to be funded by the Diamond Shamrock Corporation, a Cleveland-based firm dealing mostly in industrial and agricultural chemicals as well as oil and gas. Diamond Shamrock already has plans on the drawing board for a plant for extracting gopheroil.

According to Dr. Peoples, inquiries about gopherweed production have come from as far away as Egypt, Austria, the Virgin Islands, Australia, and Kenya,a country which currently imports all of its oil.

Researchers have much to learn about cultivating gopherweed — what fertilizers to use and how much water plants need, for example — before the plant can be grown on a large scale.

And while there are only about 10 acres of Euphorbia lathyrism now planted in Arizona, Dr. PEoples estimates that 1.3 million acres of gopherweed — the amount of land now farmed in the state — could make Arizona energy self-sufficient.

With 40 million acres, or slightly less than half of the acreage the US now plants in corn, Dr. Peoples estimates that the goal of meeting 10 percent of the nation’s energy needs could be reached.

“Everybody wants to get into this — it’s the place to be,” says the researcher, who adds that he initially thought the idea of growing oil was “a bunch of gargage.”

“Within 10 to 15 years, we can be growing energy in a substantial way,” he continues. “How much and where are questions that must be answered.”

There’s new oil being tapped in weed- cluttered acres of the Southwest, but it’s not being drilled. It’s being grown.m The key is hydrocarbons — t

Gopher Plant Care: Learn How To Grow Euphorbia Rigida

Commonly known as the gopher plant, Euphorbia rigida (yew-FORB-ee-ah RIJ-id-ah) formerly known as Euphorbia biglandulosa is a perennial succulent.

Other common names include:

  • Silver spurge
  • Upright Myrtle Spurge
  • Gopher Spurge

The silver spurge shrub is a member of the family Euphorbiaceae and one of the many types of Euphorbia plants for the landscape.

Flower and blue green leaves of the Gopher plant Euphorbia rigida

It belongs to the Euphorbia genus, named after Euphorbus, a Greek physician who is credited for introducing the Euphorbian plants.

Native to the Mediterranean and Middle East regions, the gopher plant is a low-maintenance plant-type and a drought-resistant evergreen.

Due to its unique foliage and interesting characteristics, the plant has the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit to its name.

However, it is interesting to know that in its native regions, this plant is generally classified as a weed and recommended for USDA zones 7 – 10.

The good news is that, even in its natural habitat, the gopher euphorbia is not considered to be noxious or classified as a harmful or injurious weed.

Euphorbia Rigida Gopher Plant Care

Size & Growth

The gopher spurge is an easy to grow bushy perennial that grows up to be around 1′ -2′ feet tall and 2′ -3′ feet wide.

Like most other succulents, this plant has somewhat fleshy foliage that is arranged in a spiral on upright stems.

Flower Color and Fragrance

Silver spurge is a flowering plant that bears unique, showy chartreuse-yellow bracts at the branch tips that eventually develop a hint of reddish tan.

The flowers appear in dome-shaped clusters at the tips of the branches.

The flowering season for gopher spurge plants starts in late winter, ending in early spring. However, keep in mind some plants may bloom only during late spring.

Light & Temperature

Native to the Mediterranean region, these plants enjoy the full sun but do well in partial shade.

Silver spurge gopher plants are suitable for summer-dry climates. They are hardy and can survive hot weather, as well as, the colder months of the year.

It is cold tolerant to 0° degrees Fahrenheit.

Watering and Feeding

Rigida euphorbias are generally a low-maintenance drought-tolerant plant.

In fact, once established, these plants are self-sufficient.

Water only when the soil is dry for the first few inches.

The trick is to water deeply while making sure the plant is not left sitting in wet soil causing the roots to rot.

More Euphorbia plants die due to over-pampering and overwatering than neglect.

While Euphorbia rigida grows and blooms well in poor soil, you can add fertilizer or some organic matter.

When grown in containers, apply a half-strength fertilizer once a month.

Soil & Transplanting

These plants are not particular about the type of soil. In fact, they do well in poor soil out in full sun.

Gopher plants are not picky about the pH level as well.

The only soil condition required is that the soil should be well drained.

Grooming and Maintenance

Under the right conditions, these plants are generally sturdy, require little pampering and are quite self-sufficient.

How To Propagate Rigida Euphorbia Plants

Rigida plants are known to self-seed. However, to propagate from seeds, the best time to sow gopher plant seeds is during spring.

On the other hand, when propagating these plants by cuttings, use a rooting hormone and a well-draining cactus soil.

Stick the succulent plant cutting into a pot of cactus potting soil or equals parts perlite, sand, and peat moss.

Keep the soil moist (not wet). Roots should appear in about 3 weeks.

The best time for division is late spring.

Gopher Plant Pest or Disease Problems

These plants like most euphorbias are susceptible to spider mites, aphids, nematodes, and mealybugs along with bacterial and fungal diseases.

In most cases, root rot due to overwatering is what ultimately kill these plants.

Read our article for details on: Controlling Succulent Pests

Suggested Uses For The Gopher Euphorbia Plant

Euphorbia rigida is an ornamental that can add to the beauty of any garden.

Plant in rock gardens, as a front in borders, stand alone in containers or in xeriscape landscaping.

While the gopher plant is considered to be a type of weed in its native areas, in North America and Europe, these plants are valued as hassle-free and low-maintenance flowering species.

However, keep in mind that these plants are toxic if ingested.

This makes it important to keep them away from pets and children.

They also secrete a sticky, milky-sap liquid that can cause skin irritation.

The gopher plant (Euphorbia Rigida) is a low-maintenance, drought-resistant bushy evergreen perennial, unique foliage, yellow-green flowers, [DETAILS]