It may resemble Queen Anne’s lace, but giant hogweed is much more than just a pretty face. In fact, it’s a highly-toxic plant that can send victims to the burn ward. The sap of giant hogweed – which is also known as the cartwheel-flower, giant cow parsley, or giant cow parsnip – contains furocoumarin. Certain plants develop this chemical compound in order to protect themselves against insects and mammals. It’s very effective.
How does the sap work exactly? It’s phototoxic, which means when you get the sap on your skin and then sunlight hits the area, it activates the poison. At first, your skin turns red and gets itchy. Then, blisters pop up within 48 hours and can cause scars that remain for several years. In one case, a young landscaper ended up at the hospital with third-degree burns all over his face and arms. He must avoid the sun to prevent permanent scarring.
In the 19th century, giant hogweed came to Great Britain because people thought it was pretty. They were quickly dismayed at how rapidly the plant spread, taking over native species and driving out wildlife. Giant hogweed is now considered an invasive species in France, Germany, and Belgium. You can find it here on both sides of the coastal US.
Since giant hogweed resembles other plants, it’s important to know its distinctive traits. The stem grows white hair and has purple spots. It can be found growing in open fields with lots of moist soil and sunlight, though you can also find it in partial shade alongside water. Giant hogweed lives up to its name and can grow up to 15-18 feet tall, while the harmless Queen Anne’s lace stays short at just 1-2 feet.
If you believe you’ve spotted giant hogweed in your yard, you should contact the Department of Environmental Conservation. They can offer tips on how to remove it safely. You should always wear protective gear and if you come into direct contact with the leaves, stem, or roots, immediately wash with soap and water. If you experience redness and itchiness, call your doctor. They might prescribe medication. You should also be sure to avoid sunlight to keep the poison as inactive as possible.