Extension horticulturist warns of giant hogweed

Sep 01, 2011
Courtesy of: University of Maine Cooperative Extension Giant hogweed.

Orono — It won't jump out and bite, as University of Maine Cooperative Extension professor Lois Berg Stack says, but anyone brushing up against and breaking open the robust hairs on the leaves of the giant hogweed plant might think it did.

Relatively unknown to most people prior to recent news articles, giant hogweed is an unusually large flowering weed resembling "Queen Anne's lace on steroids," according to state horticulturist Ann Gibbs, that can cause severe skin and eye irritation, painful blisters and permanent scarring from the burns it can cause when exposed to sunlight.

Giant hogweed has been reported in more than 30 sites around Maine, mostly along the coast from Hancock to York counties, according to Stack. The plant is on the federal noxious weeds list because it is so hazardous to humans.

"The USDA is interested in controlling this plant because it's a human health hazard. If it were on my property, I would cut it down at the very least," Stack said. "I would cut off the flower heads so you can control the seeds."

In spite of its toxicity, horticulturists say the plant, which is native to the Caucasus Mountains in Russia, was grown in Victorian-era gardens in the United States because of its unusual size and attractiveness. Giant Hogweed can grow 14 feet tall, has a white lacy flower head measuring more than a foot in diameter, with a series of smaller flower heads beneath it. The plant's leaves can be more than two feet long, according to Stack.

"It's a plant that, once you've seen it, you will never mistake it for anything else," she said. The leaves, she added, "are very distinct and easily distinguished from other plants' leaves. They're very lobed with a lot of silvery markings."

Stack advises property owners who discover and want to remove giant hogweed from their property to cut the plants at night or when the sun isn't out, and to wear gloves and long sleeved clothing.

"Sap on skin only burns under sunlight, she said, but can cause irreversible scarring.

For more information, contact Stack at 581-2949.

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