Giant Hogweed

What You Need to Know About Giant Hogweed, the Scary Plant That Can Burn Your Skin and Lead to Blindness

Giant hogweed was sighted for the first time in Virginia, but that is not the only state where the dangerous plant can be found.

Officials are warning outdoorsy types about coming into contact with giant hogweed, an invasive plant that can lead to third-degree burns and blindness. The plant was found in Virginia for the first time last week.

Isle of Wight County in Virginia issued a safety alert on Facebook. “Giant Hogweed makes Poison Ivy look like a walk in the park,” officials wrote.

Giant hogweed, also known as Heracleum mantagazzianum, typically grows between six and nine feet tall, occasionally stretching up to 15 feet, according to the Virginia Invasive Species register. If giant hogweed’s watery-looking sap gets on your skin, it can make you ultra-sensitive to sunlight. This process, called phytodermatitis, can result in severe burns and blistering, permanent scarring, eye irritation, and even blindness, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC).

The Massey Herbarium at Virginia Tech, which researches the state’s plant life, identified giant hogweed for the first time last week, finding approximately 30 plants in Clarke County.

VT Massey Herbarium@MasseyHerbarium

Today I helped ID VA’s first giant hogweed population! Its sap causes severe burns. One plant was found in Clarke County. Report sightings to your extension agent! ID help: https://on.ny.gov/2JHzLKy  Thanks to @herbariumkeeper and @VTAgWeeds for ID help and report! pic.twitter.com/4BM9RhyMem

VT Massey Herbarium@MasseyHerbarium

Update: there are about 30 giant hogweed plants at the site. pic.twitter.com/6d4LDRJ5DE

View image on Twitter

Giant hogweed originally grew in the Caucasus region but spread as it was introduced into botanical gardens around the world, according to the Virginia Invasive Species register. After escaping into natural habitats, it can now be found in locations in the Pacific Northwest, Maine, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, in the United States–and, apparently, Virginia.

Virginians are being urged to report sightings of giant hogweed. Look for 50 to 150 white flowers in umbrella-like clusters with leaves up to five feet across. The giant hogweed’s purple-spotted hollow stem is usually two to four inches in diameter. (You can find more identifying features of giant hogweed on the website of the NYDEC.)

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To get rid of the noxious plant, the Virginia Invasive Species register advises treatment with herbicide before the plant grows taller than two and a half feet. Rather than mow or cut giant hogweed–which can increase the risk of exposure to the dangerous sap–cut the plant’s roots, pull it up, remove its seed heads, and/or introduce competing plants (like grass) at the site to reduce soil erosion and the chance for giant hogweed seeds to take root. If you’re going to be handling giant hogweed, wear protective clothing and dispose of all pieces of the plant in heavy-duty garbage bags.

Should unprotected skin come into contact with giant hogweed sap, wash the area as soon as possible with soap and cold water. Get out of the sun–and stay out for 48 hours. Rinse your eyes with water immediately if you get sap in them, and wear sunglasses to protect you from sun exposure until you can talk to a doctor.

If you’re going to have a reaction from giant hogweed sap, you’ll likely see blisters start to form on your skin within those first 48 hours; talk to a doctor if you notice any reaction. It’s possible for your skin to remain sensitive to light for years after exposure; scarring can persist for several years as well.

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