Beware Of Giant Hogweed: Dangerous Plant Spotted Across North America

Working outside in nature you come into contact with all kinds of things. Most of the plants we innocently brush up against have no impact on our health whatsoever. Others have terrible consequences.

Have you seen what happened to a 17-year-old teen from Spotsylvania, Virginia? His face is covered with painful, blistering first and second-degree burns. Alex Childress thought it was a severe sunburn after working at his summer landscaping job.

But he tells CNN it was actually a reaction after coming into contact with the extremely toxic giant hogweed. He was cutting down a bush outside a factory, and as it fell, some of the foliage touched his face. Not long after, he was being rushed to the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center’s burn unit.

Hogweed Spreading

Unlike some weeds you might actually want growing in your garden, giant hogweed is not one of them.

Hogweed is an extremely dangerous, invasive plant that has been spotted this summer in Virginia, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan, Illinois, Washington, and Oregon. According to Global News, it’s also being found in the Atlantic provinces of Canada, as well as in Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia.

The Asian species likely came to North America as an ornamental plant in the 1940’s, and today, the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) says hogweed is one of the most dangerous plants out there. It not only causes severe burns upon skin contact, but it can even cause blindness

The reaction becomes severe when the affected area is exposed to sunlight since hogweed is phototoxic. When treating Alex Childress, doctors had him shower for an hour and a half before making him rest in a dark hospital room for two days. He now has to avoid the sun for at least six months.

what to look for in a Giant hogweed

What To Look For

Identifying giant hogweed isn’t always easy since it’s very similar in appearance to wild parsnip, Queen Anne’s lace, and cow parsnip.

What sets giant hogweed apart from the others is its size; it can grow up to six meters (20 ft) tall, and its white, flowering heads can be up to one meter across. This often means hogweed takes up large areas, shading out all native vegetation so nothing can grow beneath it. Also look for purple blotches and white hairs on the stems.   

It spreads incredibly fast; a single hogweed plant can produce tens of thousands of seeds that are easily picked up and carried to new locations by wind and water. The NCC says it can even spread by foot if seeds get stuck in the tread of your shoes. It can be found growing in gardens, along roadsides, in ditches, close to rivers and streams, or even in public spaces. In 2015, at least five children in England suffered severe burns after coming into contact with hogweed at a local park.

Keep in mind, simply touching the plant won’t put you at risk of such severe reactions; it’s the sap that is so toxic. Still, if you see it, it’s best to avoid it all together and warn others about it too. Contact environmental or government agencies so they can safely remove it from the area.

If you do come into contact with the sap, experts suggest washing the affected area immediately with soap and water and to call a doctor right away.

Hard to believe that a plant brought here to beautify our gardens has turned out to be so dangerous.

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Catherine Sherriffs

Editor at Garden Culture Magazine

Catherine is a Canadian award-winning journalist who worked as a reporter and news anchor in Montreal’s radio and television scene for 10 years. A graduate of Concordia University, she left the hustle and bustle of the business after starting a family. Now, she’s the editor and a writer for Garden Culture Magazine while also enjoying being a mom to her three young kids. Her interests include great food, gardening, fitness, animals, and anything outdoors.