Nasty, skin-burning hogweed may be invading area
The warning is dire on the state Department of Environmental Conservation website: “Do Not Touch This plant!”
The message refers to giant hogweed, a plant that is not only invasive, but really nasty too. The sap, in combination with moisture and sunlight, can cause rashes, severe blisters, scarring and even blindness.
The plant looks like an enormous version of Queen Anne’s lace, and it’s in the same carrot family. But unlike carrots and their charming wild cousins, giant hogweed grows 8 to 14 feet tall.
And it’s invading the area.
The plant is native to the Caucasus, as is the apple tree and other far nicer plants. It spread through Europe and was brought to the U.S. as an ornamental because it really is cool-looking. Imagine a Queen Anne’s lace flower — white, round flat and lacy — only more than 2 feet across. Who wouldn’t want that in a magical garden?
But hogweed is the poster child, the classic example, of why we need to be vigilant about introducing invasive species.
With the pretty invasives, it’s harder to bring that point home. Purple loosestrife, for instance, is charming along roadsides and stream banks with its bright flower spikes, but it has crowded out native wetland plants, especially cattails.
And those pretty flowers create thousands of seeds, which are dropped and carried by wind and water and birds.
The plant, originally brought over from Europe as an ornamental, spreads like crazy in the U.S., where it has no natural enemies. In its native European homes, there are plenty of insects that feed on it; not so here.
The problem with loosestrife — now prevalent in at least 40 states — is that it grows so thickly along streams and lakes that water fowl, amphibians and other wildlife can’t nest in it. They also can’t eat it, unlike the native sedges and grasses it replaces.
The same is true for other invasives: garlic mustard, water chestnuts, milfoil — they crowd out native species, gum up waterways, push out plants that animals rely on for food and habitat.
But at least they don’t hurt, which brings us back to hogweed.
You can’t get a rash from just brushing against the leaves or flowers of the plant, but the DEC site says you can get one by touching the bristles of the thick stem. The New York Invasive Species Clearinghouse, run by Cornell Cooperative, says it’s a little harder to get burned.
“For giant hogweed to affect a person, sap from a broken stem or crushed leaf, root, flower or seed must come into contact with moist skin (perspiration will suffice), with the skin then being exposed to sunlight. Irritation is not immediate, but will usually appear within one to three days after exposure . . . and can result in severe burns, blistering, painful sores, and purplish or blackened scars,” according to the clearinghouse.
The giant has been more of a problem in western parts of the state, closer to the Great Lakes. But there have been positive identifications in the Adirondacks and Catskills, and Albany and Schenectady counties, according to the DEC.
If you see the plant, the DEC wants you to take a picture of it — from a safe distance — and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. They’ll contact you, and, if necessary, send out crews to safely remove it. Think hazmat suits and thick gloves.
If you accidentally come in contact with giant hogweed, or think you have, wash thoroughly with detergent (like liquid dish detergent) as soon as you can to get any trace of the sap off you. And stay out of the sun for 48 hours.
You can also report suspected sightings to the state’s “hogweed hot line” at 845-256-3111. And the DEC website (www.dec.gov) has pictures to help you identify the leaves, flowers and stalks of the plant.
It’s a really nasty reminder of the problem with invasive species.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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