Scourge of the Sandspur

Florida natives are often surprised when we warn our northern visitors about sandspurs – and are met with blank stares or the innocent question: “What’s a Sandspur?”.

‘Sandspurs’ or ‘sandburs’ are a type of grass that produces many thorny and painful burs. On Shell Key, they are concentrated along the edge of the recently removed pine forest in the southern public use area. From a distance, it is hard to distinguish them from other native vegetation.

Sandspur Foot


If you are exploring in this area, wear shoes and tread carefully. You may find yourself in a virtual minefield at any time. The burs stick easily into skin and are quite painful. To remove them, use a piece of cloth or leaf to gently grasp the bur and pull it off.   Look for a small spike that may be left behind after removal. You might need tweezers to get it. These can be very painful and get quite sore if not removed.

Population Explosion
Longtime visitors to shell key will recall a time with far fewer sandspurs.  The current population boom is most likely due to the 10 year eradication effort to remove the  ‘exotic’ Australian pine forest in the South Public Use area.  For decades, these trees dropped nutrient rich leaves and twigs onto the soil.  When they were cut, the richer soil was exposed to sunlight and the sandspurs had a field day (pun intended).  Sandspurs are one of those ‘pioneer’ species that will move in to an immature,  bare or newly disturbed environment – to restart the eventual progression to a forested area.  Once the trees that were planted to replace the pines have matured in a few decades, the sandspurs will eventually die back in numbers … out-competed by a balanced and mature ecosystem.

sandspurSandspurs are summer annuals. They create their “fruit” (burs) over the summer. In fact, sandspurs are an edible grain that can be processed into porridge and flour.

Those that are not carried away by a passing flip-flop will fall to the ground and produce next year’s crop.  Like most annuals, sandspurs appear quickly in the spring.  They are already nasty by this time, but you can usually remove them without leaving splinters.  By late summer and autumn, the sandspurs become more brittle and are more likely to leave splinters. They are dry, sharp and ready to come off the stalk at the slightest bristle.

sandspurBy winter, the majority of the burs will have lost most of their sharp points and the sandspurs will be a little less bothersome.

Eradication of sandspurs is reasonably straight forward in a controlled, home lawn situation. If they are mowed down, they will not be able to make next year’s crop.  Although I have seen them adapt by growing sideways and making burs close to the ground.  Otherwise, they can be dealt with in the spring – after the new plants have sprouted and before they make fruit (burs).  At that time of year, they should be pulled from the ground by hand – being careful not to leave behind burs for next year.

This approach, however, would not work in a wild area like Shell Key.  By removing sandspurs in this environment, we are really just resetting the clock to a less mature ecosystem.  Remember that these grasses thrive in bare sand.  Trying to eradicate sandspurs in a wild environment would be an exercise in futility.

The long-term control of sandspurs on Shell Key will rely on nurturing a mature ecosystem where a diverse and established community of plants and animals keep the sandspurs in check.




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Article: Scourge of the Sandspur
7 comments on “Scourge of the Sandspur
  1. A whole spur is in my foot it’s deep and I tried water tweesers and nail clippers it really hurts how do I remove it with no doctor visits

    • Jack Coletti says:

      I usually dig them out with a needle and razor blade – just be careful and shave away only tiny layers of skin until you have enough of the bur to pull it out with tweezers. I usually ask my wife to do it for me 🙂 The bur will eventually dissolve on its own, but it could be bothersome for several days before it goes away.

  2. Becca says:

    I have a question. But first thank you for this information, it was helpful. I have had a spike from a sand spur embedded in my heal and it will not no matter what I do come out. Is it harmful? What are ways I may try to get it out. It is slightly painful to walk on it but eventually through out the day it goes away. I just want it out. Any suggestions?

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Becca: They are quite painful and annoying – but they will not cause any lasting harm. It may take a week or so, but your body will eventually dissolve and absorb the sandspur barb if you are unable to remove it.

      If the barb is buried deeply, your success in removing it will depend on how much you are willing to dig in to the skin to get it. I usually prefer to dig it out – even if I cause some collateral damage to the surrounding skin. Since yours is on your heel, you will probably need to get someone who is trustworthy, gentle and patient to try to excavate the barb with tweezers.

      Before you start hacking at the barb with tweezers, examine the area with a magnifying glass or some reading glasses to determine if there is enough of the barb above the surface of the skin to grab with tweezers. Use a light and try to view the area from the side to see the barb. If you are lucky, you will have enough of the barb to carefully grab and pull with tweezers. If you just start grabbing at the barb without examining how it is embedded, you may break off the end – and then you will need to dig for it…

      We use a razor blade to carefully scrape away the surface layers of dead skin until enough of the barb is exposed to grab it with tweezers. It really helps to use a reading glasses and a headlight for this kind of micro-surgery. You want to be minimally invasive with the procedure and remove only tiny shavings of the surface layers of skin. If you are careful and patient, you can excavate the barb without much pain or damage to the surrounding flesh.

      I have also heard of people using hot wax to “draw out” the barb. I’ve tried it a couple of times and it never worked for me. I would imagine that you could also try applying glue to the area – and peel it off after it dries. But these methods are not very effective because the barb is so tiny and there is usually very little above the skin for the glue to grab.

      Like I said, you can leave it alone and your body will eventually absorb and heal it on it’s own.

      Good Luck 🙂

  3. Ryan Neil Lund says:

    Thank you for posting this. Preparing for an overnight on Shell and this was great information to ensure our trip is a success.

  4. There are 3 ways to get rid of sandspurs. 1. Prevent them from spreading their seeds 2. Using a herbicide that targets this plant while not hurting other plants that you want to grow. 3. eat them

    Sand spurs do very well in poor soil conditions (sandy, low nutrients). Grass on the other hand needs a good fertilized healthy soil.

    To prevent them from spreading, cut the lawn low and use a leaf catcher to discard the cutting properly. This prevents the seeds from sowing again.

    BTW, the seeds without their spines are edible and can be used in recipies just like pine nuts. However, to remove the stickers you need to burn them off.

    Alternatively, you can use a herbicide like Bayer “All in one weed and crabgrass killer”

    Homemade weed and pant killers is a mixture of 1 gallon vinegar, 1cup of salt, 2 tablespoons of dishwasing soap. The vinegar lowers the PH, the salt extracts the moisture from the plant and the soap helps to keep it on the plant long enough to work. Careful, it will kill good plants too.

    Once you have it under control, it’s easy to recognize any stray saplings and they pull out pretty easily so the can be discarded.

    To finish and recap most sandspurs are prevalent in soils or lawns that are not being taken care of. Great lawns require proper watering, deep roots, fertilizer and minerals to grow healthy.

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Great information – Thank you! (and sorry for not clearing your posts in a timely manner – I think I have it configured to properly notify me from now on.)

2 Pings/Trackbacks for "Scourge of the Sandspur"
  1. […] have become so numerous because of a change in the Florida landscape, according to an article published by Shell Key in Pinellas County’s Web site by Jack Coletti. In the case of Shell Key, an Australian pine […]

  2. […] the way, I decided that the island should be called “Spur Island” after those vicious sandspurs. In reality they’re probably a good deterrent keeping people from trekking all over the […]

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