For more than a century, gardeners in certain parts of America have had to deal with a noxious plant called the giant hogweed. At first glance, the eye-catching weed could be considered harmless, but that’s certainly not the case. For you see, it’s capable of causing serious burns if you venture too close to it.
Unlike a typical weed that you’d find in your backyard, the giant hogweed is known to reach heights of around 14 feet as well as boasting some sizable leaves. Indeed, a single leaf can have a span of up to 5 feet. In addition to that, the invasive plant also sprouts a number of white flowers at its crown.
The giant hogweed has been spreading across the United States for more than a century now, with another sighting being made in June 2018. At that point the weed was found in Virginia, which marked its very first confirmed appearance in the state. And there were immediately concerns surrounding the dangerous plant.
The following month, a gardener in Virginia suffered serious burns after coming into contact with the giant hogweed during his work. Such was his condition that he ended up staying in a local ICU for around 48 hours. With that in mind, more information subsequently surfaced about the plant.
Over the past few centuries, countless plants have been transported to different countries across the world. For instance, it’s thought that the dandelion first arrived in the United States back in the 1600s, coinciding with the Mayflower’s famous voyage from England. And in some ways, the giant hogweed’s spread followed a similar path.
The giant hogweed started to grow in the Caucasus area of Europe, which is made up of countries such as Russia, Armenia and Georgia. Back then, the weed was seen by some as an “ornamental plant” due to its interesting appearance. As a result, unaware of its dangers, people began to transport the plant to other parts of the continent.
In the United Kingdom, the giant hogweed was introduced in 1817, and it spotted in the while a little over a decade later. At that stage, though, it was still viewed as an ornamental plant, with more countries welcoming it to their shores throughout the 19th century. Then, the weed made its next big move in the early 1900s.
After spreading across Europe, the giant hogweed finally arrived in Canada and America during that period. The plant was initially used for model gardens, ahead of a significant moment in 1917. That year, someone planted its seeds in Rochester, New York, kick-starting the plant’s growth around the country.
Before long, the giant hogweed started to pop up in states such as Maryland, Pennsylvania, Washington, Maine and Ohio. In the meantime, the weed’s hazards finally came to light back in Europe during the 1950s. Incredibly, though, that still didn’t stop certain individuals from growing it on their farms and in their gardens.
So in 2002 a move was made to ensure the safety of British citizens. Prior to that, the giant hogweed had been listed in the Royal Horticultural Society of Great Britain’s yearly Plant Finder book. Given the dangers the plant posed, though, it made its final appearance in the publication that year.
Officials in America have also attempted to warn people of the plant’s hazards, leading to a bold decision. While the giant hogweed can still be found in several areas of the country, the U.S Department of Agriculture has placed the plant on its noxious weeds list. As a result of that, you now need a permit to legally move it to another state.
However, despite those efforts, the giant hogweed has continued to spread in the U.S., sprouting up in Virginia in June 2018. The weed was spotted by a group from the Massey Herbarium, a department at Virginia Tech. And following the discovery, the experts shared their findings on social media.
“Today I helped ID Virginia’s first giant hogweed population!” read a post on the Massey Herbarium’s Facebook page in June 2018. “One plant was found in Clarke County. Report sightings to your extension agent!” From there, the message was eventually updated, confirming that there were “about 30 plants” in the area.
Alongside the post, the Massey Herbarium included some photographs of the giant hogweed as well, in an attempt to caution local users. For you see, this particular weed bears some resemblance to another plant found in the region, known as cow parsnip. As for the reaction on Facebook, a large number of people responded to the news.
Indeed, since being posted, the Massey Herbarium message has earned in excess of 250 likes and more than 2,500 shares on the social media website. In addition to that, it’s also generated hundreds of comments from online users. And as it turned out, a few of them had endured some unfortunate experiences when dealing with the weed in the past.
“We had hogweed growing in our backyard in 2017 in Richmond, Virginia,” wrote a Facebook user in the comments section. “And my boyfriend was burned by it when trying to remove it. We never reported it because it took a while for us to figure out what it was. Truly horrible, stay away from this demon plant!”
Those sentiments were echoed by a fellow user who’d their own encounter with the giant hogweed. “Unfortunately I’ve been in it twice and I don’t wish it on anyone,” they wrote. “It burns, and [it] scarred my hand and legs. It was horrible. The doctor at the ER never heard of it. I still have some on my property.”
Furthermore, another social media user raised a troubling point in their response, as they suggested that the plant had in fact already been in Virginia for a while. “It grows all over Amherst County,” the individual explained. “Especially along the James River, ditches and open creeks.” Their warning didn’t end there, though.
“My mom’s hand and legs were severely burned by it,” the user added. “[It] looked like someone had poured hot grease on her…and that was a few years ago. They said it didn’t grow here but it’s all over the place.” Moreover, the giant hogweed is still causing problems in the U.K. too.
Some three years before the Massey Herbarium made its discovery, a group of youngsters got a little too close to the plant in Bolton, England. Afterwards, one of their moms explained what had happened next during an interview with Good Morning Britain. And in keeping with the previous stories, the weed had caused some notable harm.
“We came for a family day out,” Rebecca Challinor told the program in August 2015. “We were having a picnic down by the river’s edge. It was a beautiful day. There were lots of these plants around and I noticed them because they’re very striking, but I didn’t realize they were poisonous at all.”
“The children were just playing in the field, and 24 hours later we noticed that [my daughter] had a red line down her back,” Challinor added. “We didn’t realize what that was, and then it turned into huge yellow sore blisters.” Moreover, there was a case in Virginia that was arguably even worse than that.
A few weeks on from the announcement by the Massey Herbarium, a teenager named Alex Childress arrived for work as per normal. At that time the teenager was plying his trade as a landscaper, ahead of starting college later in the year. But on that particular day, Childress had a horrible encounter with the giant hogweed.
Unaware of the dangers it posed, Childress cut down one of the weeds, which then landed on his head. From there, the teenager went on to carry the hazardous plant in his arms, before disposing of it. But a short time later, the full effects of the exposure came to light after he entered his bathroom.
“I thought I just had sunburn, so I didn’t really pay any attention,” Childress told People magazine in July 2018. “Then I got in the shower, and I started rubbing my face. I thought it was just a little bit of skin at first, but then big chunks of my face were falling off.”
Thankfully for Childress, though, his mom worked as a nurse at Virginia Commonwealth University, so he went to her for assistance. After that, she pulled up a picture of the giant hogweed, with her son recognizing the plant straight away. Then, the pair quickly made their way over to the local hospital.
Following an examination, Childress was subsequently referred to the university’s burn unit. And unsurprisingly, the experience was far from pleasant. “It felt like wind-burn, like my skin was chapped,” he continued. “[Doctors] had me stand in the shower for an hour and a half, scrubbing my body with soap to bring the pH level down.”
“I had hot water running over open wounds, that was probably the worst part,” Childress added. “That or the burn treatment where they scraped off the dead skin.” The aspiring student spent two days at the facility after being admitted, but the hard work only continued when he went back home.
“I have to change the bandages every day,” Childress revealed. “It’s painful. Every time I take the bandage off there’s drainage. My arm is bleeding because the skin is trying to heal. It’s more than half my face and from my wrist up to the top of my bicep on my right arm.”
As for what causes these issues, the giant hogweed emits a dangerous resin that sticks to our skin upon contact. At that stage, those particular chemicals then make the affected area more sensitive to sunlight, which results in the troublesome burns. But that’s not all, though, as our eyes are susceptible to problems as well.
In a worst-case scenario, you could potentially go blind if you get any of the sap in your eyes. Furthermore, in terms of any other long-lasting effects, the burned skin needs to be shielded from the sun for around half a year after it’s healed. Childress could certainly relate to that, as he was given some strict instructions by his physicians.
“I can’t go out into the sun for anywhere from two to six months,” Childress told People. “My face could be sensitive to light for a year, up to two years.” While it might have been too late for the teenager, there are ways to minimize the damage caused by the sap if you act quickly enough.
In fact, New York State’s Department of Health offered up some important advice on that subject via its official website. “If you are exposed to the plant sap, avoid contact with your eyes,” The post read. “Wash it off immediately with soap and water, avoid sunlight and cover the exposed area.”
“Using sunscreen on [the] affected areas may help prevent further reactions from occurring when outside,” the statement continued. “Sunscreen may also be helpful for several months after contact with the plant sap, due to potential continued sun sensitivity. Call your healthcare provider for any severe reactions or if [the] sap has gotten into your eyes.”
At that point, the post revealed that doctors would normally prescribe a type of skin lotion to help treat the burns. Then, the Department of Health offered up further advice to those who have to deal with the dangerous plant. For instance, if you want to clear it from your backyard, you should take certain precautions.
“Do not mow, cut or weed whack the plant, as it will just send up new growth and put you at risk of being exposed to [the] sap,” the post explained. “[This is] the same kind of thing that would happen with poison ivy or sumac. Seek advice from professional plant control specialists about management options.”
Off the back of that suggestion, the statement then shared some final pointers. “If you must touch [the] giant hogweed, wear disposable rubber gloves, a long-sleeved shirt and pants,” it added. “If you get sap on your clothes, carefully remove the clothing to avoid skin and eye contact. [Then] wash it separately from other clothing with warm water and detergent.”
In the meantime, Childress faced down an additional challenge following his encounter with the weed. Unfortunately for him, his injuries compromised his place at college, as he was set to take on a course with the army. As a result, the teenager had a tense wait ahead of him in the summer of 2018.
“I worked hard to get the scholarship,” Childress told People. “When my face heals, I have to go through a whole medical waiver process to make sure they won’t pull my scholarship. It’s a possibility I won’t be able to [attend in the fall], so that’s been a real struggle for my family.”
But while Childress’ future was hanging in the balance, he still looked to play his part in shining a light on the dangers of the weed. “I don’t want to go through this again,” the Virginia resident added. “I’d like to bring awareness to everyone else so it doesn’t happen to other people.