Is Giant Hogweed's Spread to Virginia Worth all the Fear and Fuss?
A firestorm of news reports appeared last summer after the discovery of Giant Hogweed in Clarke County, Virginia. Why so newsworthy? Well, it wasn't the inelegant name or that it posed an imminent risk to thousands of Virginians. No, I believe it made headlines because it is dangerously cool. You see, if the sap from giant hogweed got onto your skin and was exposed to sunlight, it would cause horrible blistering. If it gets in your eyes? Possible blindness. The story almost writes itself.
Many times in the past dangerous (yet cool!) natural phenomena have sparked a morbid fascination. Flesh-eating bacteria led to many a bad horror flick. SNL had a field day in the mid-1970s with The Killer Bees (followed by the WWF Killer Bees in the mid-1980s). Watching Tarzan as youngsters, who among us didn't think quicksand would play a much larger role in their lives? All dangerous. All pretty cool. None a real threat to our very existence.
Why? Because there are no known cases of Giant Hogweed spreading naturally in Virginia!
I don't want to leave the impression there's no problem ... there is. It's just not of the magnitude that news reports might lead us to believe. One positive from the ubiquitous coverage of the Clarke County “infestation” was the discovery of a few other sites in Virginia. All of which had giant hogweed planted as an ornamental years before it was known to be a health risk.
Native to Northern Asia, Giant Hogweed was originally imported to England and eventually North America as a decorative landscape plant. Its rapid growth, huge leaves, and white, umbrella-shaped clusters of flowers, while not exactly attractive, are quite interesting. Some have even likened these blooms to Queen Anne’s Lace.
But the sap of this plant causes phytophotodermatitis - inflammation and third-degree burns so bad the skin can have permanent scarring and sensitivity to light. Disastrous on your skin, life-changing if it were to get in your eyes.
It’s the combination of skin exposure to the sap and to sunlight afterward that causes the severity of the reaction. WebMD recommends immediately washing the affected area with soap and cold water but also avoiding sunlight and/ or wearing sunglasses depending on where you’ve been exposed.
Because assured removal of the plant requires eradicating the entire root system, there’s a high risk of getting sap on yourself during the process. So if you think you’ve seen this plant, which is considered a noxious weed by federal and state authorities, contact your local extension agent. Get it removed by a professional.
It’s worth repeating — Giant Hogweed does not grow and spread naturally in Virginia. In northern states and Canada, with a cooler climate this plant favors, there are programs in effect to eradicate this invasive species. Either way, take precautions. For more specifics on identification and control see this bulletin from Virginia Tech’s educational outreach program, the Virginia Cooperative Extension.