Just the scientific name itself can be startling enough, but reports of giant hogweed in North Carolina have caused concern, in large part because of the plant’s severe effect on human skin – considered much worse than a bout with poison ivy – and because the invasive plant with white blossoms resembles the more common, smaller Queen Anne’s lace.
Whether they’re out jogging or working in the yard, folks think they’re seeing giant hogweed everywhere.
“Giant hogweed does exist in North Carolina, but thankfully there are only a few known infestations, and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture is working to eradicate those populations,” said Tom Dyson, extension director for Lincoln County. “It is good that this effort is underway.”
The giant hogweed phenomena began this spring when researchers from Virginia Tech located multiple plants in Clarke County in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and reports of its appearance spread like kudzu after it was conveyed that sap from the giant hogweed, combined with moisture and sunlight, can cause third-degree burns, blistering, permanent scarring and even blindness if it comes into contact with eyes.
“By simply brushing against the bristles on the stem or by breaking open the stem or leaves, it is possible to have significant contact with the sap,” Dyson said.
Within North Carolina’s borders, the cooperative extension reports giant hogweed has only been identified in Watauga County, where it was first confirmed in 2010. A homeowner introduced the plant years ago to combat soil erosion and also shared it with neighbors. It has been located in six sites near Blowing Rock, and the population of plants is quarantined and being eradicated by specialists using herbicides.
Native to eastern Europe, giant hogweed is classified as a federal noxious weed, which means it’s illegal to own, plant or transport. Its size, though, should help distinguish it from other plants.
Giant hogweed can grow 14 feet tall, with compound leaves up to 5 feet wide and a flower of 20 inches in diameter. The plant’s hollow stem is 2 to 4 inches in diameter, and birds feed on the plant’s fruit, spreading the seed, which can germinate for up to 15 years.