Mystery solved! Daphne laureola, aka Spurge Laurel, of the Thymelaeaceae family.
As it turns out, this is NOT a friendly plant. Here are some of its unpleasant characteristics and side effects:
- The berries, leaves, and bark are toxic – and possibly fatal – to humans, cats, dogs, and livestock
- Handling causes contact dermatitis – it has a caustic sap that will make you itch and burn and break out in an embarrassing rash, which will be the least of your worries – DO NOT TOUCH!
- Its roots will sucker like crazy – not “can” – WILL!
- It has multitudes of seeds that are dispersed by weather and also by birds and voles after eating the fruit. Evidently, the fruit is not poisonous to birds; in fact, they rather enjoy it. I am not sure about voles; for all I know, their little carcasses could be blocking underground tunnels all over my yard, but that might be negative wishful thinking on my part.
- It is a Class B noxious weed on Washington’s Most Wanted list (not mandatory removal, but highly advised – might be required in some counties). It will outcompete native vegetation. It will take over forests of cedar, garry oak, and madrone.
- Once established, it is VERY hard to get rid of (we do not need another Scotch Broom!)
After reading this information, I went right out, put on a pair of heavy-duty gloves, and with considerable effort, managed to dig it out of the ground. It did not give up easily. The roots are thick and ropey – and I am sure I will have to watch the area carefully to make sure broken pieces don’t re-start. I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I couldn’t compost it or just toss it over the hill. So I burned it alive. The noxious weed put out a lot of smoke. I stood upwind and, believe me, I did NOT inhale! The smoke can be a severe irritant to eyes and lungs!
It is too bad, really. It was quite beautiful. The glossy deep-green leaves slightly curled downward, hiding the inconspicuous yellow-green blossoms… flowers in February are a rare treat and normally protected. References say the plant is pollinated by bees, and I did, indeed, see my bees on them, so the plant must provide a source of early-season pollen. Perhaps I should have curbed my paranoia and waited a few more days before my panic-driven slaughter, but it is too late for anything but remorse. Daphne likes calcareous / alkaline soil, but is obviously quite adaptable. It has some traditional medicinal uses that I have not tried, nor can I recommend—but apparently it is quite useful at making one throw up. I think the term used was “purging,” which, combined with spewing, might be called “spurging,” which might be a way of remembering the alternative name, Spurge Laurel.
I am always looking for multipurpose plants that can grow in shade / dappled shade, because I seem to be creating a lot of it with all the shrubs I have been planting – and especially those that bloom and offer pollen and nectar when others flowers are scarce. I was initially delighted with this newfound wonder. But as it turns out, Spurge Laurel is not a good neighbor.
Ah, this Greek nymph of the plant world – sweet Daphne – sometimes the most lovely can be the most lethal, can they not? Surely, we cannot fault it for evolutionary survival and defense mechanisms fine-tuned over the millennia, but then again, even though we cannot pretend to fully understand the subversive tactics of the underground, we also cannot afford to be complacent. We must take heed.
Yes, this is a call to action: Beware of the Evil Weed.
If you see it, do not touch it directly.
Eliminate it before it achieves domination of the world as you know it in your own backyard, however you define that space.
You and I have been forewarned.