A Towering, Toxic Plant That Causes Burns and Blindness Has Appeared in Virginia

The giant hogweed, an invasive species, is more typically seen in the Northeast

Huhu Uet/Wikimedia Commons

The giant hogweed is an impressive-looking plant. It can grow up to 14 feet tall, with huge leaves and white flowers that cluster into an umbrella shape. If you don’t look too closely at it its stem, which is covered in purple splotches and coarse hair-like protrusions, the giant hogweed is almost pretty.

But woe to the person who touches the hogweed—it is a noxious plant that can cause severe burns and blindness. And, as Justin Wm. Moyer reports for the Washington Post, it has been spotted in Virginia for the first time.

Giant hogweed, or Heracleum mantegazzianum, is a Southwest Asian plant that was brought to the United States for ill-advised ornamental purposes in 1917. Since then, the plant has become established in New York state, which has felled more than 6.3 million hogweed plants, and other locations in the Northeast. Giant hogweeds have also been known to plague Washington and Oregon. But according to Sara Chodosh of Popular Science, the plant has never before been seen in Virginia, and rarely that far south. Environmental officials reported seeing the plant in South Carolina's Watauga County in 2013, but it has not been reported since.

The dastardly weed has been reported in several counties, including Middlesex County, Clarke County and Shenandoah County, reports Mathew Diebel of USA Today.

Giant hogweed is so dangerous because it releases a sap that contains chemicals called photosensitizing furanocoumarins. These chemicals make human skin extremely sensitive to sunlight, so contact with the plant and subsequent exposure to normal amounts of sunlight can cause severe, painful blisters and scarring. If the sap gets into the eyes, it can cause permanent blindness.

If you come into contact with a giant hogweed, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation recommends washing the affected area with soap and water and staying out of the sun for 48 hours. However, hogweed sap is so potent that the skin can remain sensitive for years following exposure, according to fact-checking site Snopes.

Giant hogweed seeds are dispersed across short distances by the wind, but they can make it further if they are accidentally transported in soil. Caitlin O’Kane of CBS News reports that birds and waterways can also transport the seeds to new locations.

Jordan Metzgar, a curator at Virginia Tech’s Massey Herbarium, tells Moyer of the Post that Virginia residents should not try to cut down giant hogweeds themselves, but instead contact the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs or a local extension office. Removing the plants requires special care and, most importantly, protective gear.

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