Invasive plant a toxic ‘horror’

Oil of giant hogweed can cause ‘severe second-degree burns’

Giant hogweed contains an oil that can result in serious injuries if it comes in contact with skin. Courtesy photo

Evoking a tale of terror from the likes of H.P. Lovecraft or Edgar Allan Poe, a headline reads, “Horror from the wild.”

But the text printed below

doesn’t focus on a tentacled behemoth or a ghastly specter — and it isn’t a work of fiction.

It’s a news article about a plant.

“It’s definitely a real issue,” said Tom Ford, a commercial horticulture educator with the local Penn State Extension. “Never touch it.”

Ford was talking about giant hogweed, an invasive plant species found in Pennsylvania, including locally.

The plant, which is toxic to humans, has been the focal point of numerous news articles — like PennLive’s “Horror from the wild” — social media posts and backyard discussions over the past days and weeks.

And though the plant has been present in Pennsylvania for decades, Ford said the renewed attention to giant hogweed could be a trend with positive results.

Pretty but dangerous

Giant hogweed is “pretty,” said Shannon Powers, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Agriculture.

“They are attractive plants,” she said, but they are equally harmful.

Stretching up to 10 feet or taller, giant hogweed can be identified by its clusters of small white flowers, its hollow stalks covered by coarse hairs and purplish spots and its green, jagged leaves.

“It’s a huge plant. It’s kind of unmistakable,” Powers said.

Giant hogweed looks like a larger version of Queen-Anne’s Lace — or the equally toxic poison hemlock, she said.

It is an invasive species, meaning the plant has an origin outside of the United States — likely in Asia.

Powers speculated that the plant probably was transported into the country intentionally by Eastern settlers, who know how to carefully handle the weed.

However, she stressed that only experts should handle or removed growths of giant hogweed.

The plant contains an oil that can result in serious injuries if it comes in contact with skin, Powers said.

The oil, when activated by sunlight, causes “severe second-degree burns” and large blisters or ulcers, she said.

If that oil is rubbed from a person’s hands into their eyes, it can cause vision damage, including blindness.

Because of that possibility, Ford said anyone who comes in contact with the plant should avoid touching their face and should immediately flush the affected area with water.

A noxious weed

For decades, giant hogweed has grown wild in the United States, and since at least the 1990s, it has grown in Pennsylvania, Powers said.

“It has been around for a long time,” she said.

Within the state, most reported growths have been only single plants, which typically sprout in moist, rich soil along roadsides, in streambanks or near abandoned structures, Powers said.

The plant has been spotted in 500 locations since it was first discovered in Pennsylvania, and the sale or cultivation of giant hogweed, a “noxious weed,” has been outlawed since 2000, Powers said in an email.

When the weed is identified and reported, a Department of Agriculture botanist is deployed to properly remove plants and to treat sites.

“It has to be handled very carefully,” Powers said, warning that untrained people and landscapers should refrain from dealing with the plant.

Giant hogweed can be spread easily because it houses many small seeds.

A site is not considered free of giant hogweed until there is no new growth for three years, Powers said.

Of the 500 reported locations since the 1990s, only 40 are now considered active, she said.

Sites have been reported in Berks, Butler, Carbon, Centre, Chester, Crawford, Erie, Huntingdon, McKean, Venango and Warren counties.

Ford remembers the discovery of giant hogweed in Blair County, as well.

“It has shown up here in the past,” he said, recalling a particular case in the Bellwood area. “I think it’s still rare to run into it.”

Viral attention

In the last week of June and first week of July, the term giant hogweed was near viral, as news organizations, national and local, published stories about the plant.

The New York Times, Scientific American and Good Housekeeping were among them.

The attention, Powers said, likely stems from the recent discovery of giant hogweed for the first time in Virginia.

According to Scientific American, giant hogweed has now been found growing in 12 states.

The news of a Virginia sighting — coupled with the severity of injuries that can be caused by physical contact with the plant — created a situation ripe for social media attention, Ford said.

Searches for the term “giant hogweed” on social media platforms like Twitter show dozens, if not hundreds, of users posting photos of the plant and linking to articles while warning “do no touch.”

“Social media drove it,” Ford said of the ongoing story of giant hogweed.

But that is a good thing, he said.

Getting information out about toxic or harmful plants is a good way to prevent injuries or even deaths, Ford said.

Ford specifically referenced stories about children who were killed because they used hollow stalks of poison hemlock as whistles, and foragers who mistook young giant hogweed for wild carrot tops.

Because of those cases, Ford said he welcomes ongoing media attention.

“I think it’s a good thing because it keeps you aware,” he said.

If you suspect giant hogweed

– Call 1-877-464-9333

– Email RA-plant@pa.gov

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