Plant That Causes 3rd Degree Burns, Blindness Found in Virginia

June 19, 2018 Updated: June 25, 2018    

A very dangerous poisonous plant has been spotted in Virginia and residents are encouraged to report it if they see it—while they can still see.

Giant Hogweed is an invasive plant with some very nasty properties—at worst it can cause 3rd-degree burns and permanent blindness.

According to the Isle of Wight County, Virginia, Facebook page, “Giant Hogweed makes Poison Ivy look like a walk in the park. Contact with this plant, combined with exposure to the sun, can produce 3rd degree burns and permanent blindness.”

A giant hogweed burn—5 days to 5 months after initial exposure (DEC/NY.gov/Bob Kleinberg)
A giant hogweed burn—5 days to 5 months after initial exposure (DEC/NY.gov/Bob Kleinberg)

The plant’s sap is particularly noxious. It can cause phytophotodermatitis—the sap makes skin ultra-sensitive to sunlight, to the point that normal exposure to the sun can cause third-degree burns.

The sap can raise huge blisters, which sometimes leave equally huge scars, and once exposed, the skin can stay sensitive for several years.

If the sap gets into someone’s eyes, it can do irremediable damage. A person can be blinded for life.

The Commonwealth of Virginia is taking this plant invasion very seriously. Residents are asked to report any sightings of Giant Hogweed to the Virginia Invasive Species website.

About 30 plants were spotted in Clark County according to staff at Massey Herbarium. According to the Isle of Wight County Facebook page, there have also been reported sightings in the Staunton area and Middlesex County.

“There is a strong possibility that the Giant Hogweed could find its way into the Tidewater/Coastal Virginia area,” the page warns.

Heracleum mantegazzianum Sommer & Lever, Riesen-Bärenklau, Apiaceae, Deutschland, Bayern, Oberfranken, Selbitz Photo: U.Schmidt, 1977 (Wikimedia commons)

A Dangerous Invader

Giant Hogweed can move into an area and take over. It grows like a weed but gets as big as a small tree—it can grow to 14 feet tall, with stalks up to 4 inches in diameter, according to this report by CBS News.

The plants choke off sunlight from other plants, and will dominate any area, and spread about everywhere if left unchecked.

The plants aren’t easy to kill either.

Using chemicals to eradicate a stand of hogweed (forestryimages.org)
Using chemicals to eradicate a stand of hogweed (forestryimages.org)

The recommended method is to use toxic chemicals—not a great option, but still the best option. Trying to cut the plant with a mower or a weed-whacker can be extremely dangerous, as it could cause the sap to spray onto the operator.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has a long list of methods for eradicating the plant—and an equally long list of warnings about what can go wrong.

(dec.ny.gov)
(dec.ny.gov)

One of the primary points they mention is that the plants have to be cut after the seeds appear, but before they mature. And because the plants are so hardy and grow so quickly, they have to be cut down to the ground at least three times in each growing season.

Even so, it might take several years to eradicate a stand of Hogweed by mowing.

Digging out the roots is the best method, and the only certain and permanent method, but is only practical for small patches.

Giant hogweed (Bruce Ackley & Alyssa/ohiostate.pressbooks.pub)
Giant hogweed (Bruce Ackley & Alyssa/ohiostate.pressbooks.pub)

 

The site also mentions pruning off the flowers before the seeds mature—again, only useful for small stands—and “cutting and covering”—cutting the plants back to the ground, then covering the ground with plastic bags and mulch.

The site also notes that Hogweed seeds can stay viable in the soil for up to 15 years—so once this stuff moves in, residents have to stay watchful even if it looks like they have successfully eradicated it.

 

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