“I bet it’s cow parsnip,” said Lenny.
“That’s the house number. Turn here,” I pointed.
I hopped out and gaped at the plant. It towered above my height of 5 feet 9 inches. The leaves were enormous. I walked up to take a closer look saw hairy stems blotched with purple.
“It’s giant hogweed,” frowned Lenny.
Back at the office, Lenny and I contacted the Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and requested their help to manage the small stand of giant hogweed.
“Being the first documented occurrence of giant hogweed in Hamilton County, rapid response was critical to ensure that this site in Speculator was not allowed to spread to new areas,” explained Brendan Quirion, APIPP’s Terrestrial Invasive Species Project Coordinator. “This site was also located in close proximity to a dwelling posing an imminent threat to human health.”
This invasive plant is a public health hazard because its sap reacts with sunlight and moisture (sweat) and can cause blisters, burns, scaring, or blindness. Children pretend hollow stems are flutes, swords, or telescopes, and may be harmed by the sap. People may encounter sap if they brush up against broken vegetation.
A native to Eurasia, giant hogweed arrived in the United States as an impressive ornamental that was a coveted addition to gardens and arboretum due to its large size and beautiful flowers. Plants escaped their confines and giant hogweed is now established throughout the northeastern United States and beyond.
Due to giant hogweed’s gargantuan size, it can out-compete native plants for sunlight and growing space. Wildlife may lose a food source. Shallow roots are not as affective at holding soil in place as native plant roots, and soil erosion may occur.
A few key characteristics can help with identification as this invader can be mistaken for cow parsnip, poison hemlock, or angelica. Hairy, green stems have purple blotches. Small white flowers grow in clusters shaped like an umbrella that can span 2.5 feet. Flowers bloom in June or July. Leaves are lobed and large, often reaching 5 feet.
Strong agency partnerships allowed for rapid response to the small stand of giant hogweed growing on private property in the Village of Speculator, Hamilton County. The property owners had been cutting the invader for years, only to see it grow back larger than before. They contacted the DEC’s giant hogweed hotline, and the site location was passed on to APIPP.
Lenny and I asked the landowners to sign an indemnity agreement to permit herbicide treatment on their property, and also gave them an invasive plant information packet. Two weeks after the paperwork was signed, certified APIPP staff removed the flower heads then sprayed the plants with herbicide. These coordinated efforts and public awareness highlight early detection and rapid response at its very best.
In an effort to get the word out about the adverse impacts of giant hogweed, I made a movie, ‘Giant Hogweed: a Toxic Invader’ that can be viewed on You Tube.
While searching for photos to include in the movie, I was fortunate to come across Hannah Marie Schmale’s photography blog. The photos she posted showed her bottom lip swollen and blistered from a reaction to giant hogweed. I was interested in her story and she eagerly shared it with me.
“July of 2011 I participated in the Seattle to Portland Bikeride,” detailed Schmale. “The route was mainly roads, and parts of it were on paths. There were designated rest stops throughout the ride, but I, of course, could not wait! Several times throughout the 2 day ride, I decided to use the restroom in the bushes! I specifically remember parting the bushes as I walked into them. Each time, before I started riding again, I applied chap stick with my finger. I was only putting it on to moisturize my lips – I was not even thinking about the fact that there was no SPF in the chap stick I was using. I would apply it onto my bottom lip and then press my lips together. The helmet I was wearing had a built in sun visor. So I believe that what happened was I came into contact with the giant hogweed plant when I was parting the bushes, then my contaminated finger transferred the toxin directly to my bottom lip, and then the shiny chap stick attracted the sun even more while I was riding in the direct sunlight for 2 full days. I think my upper lip didn’t get much of the toxin, and was possibly shaded by my visor.”
Schmale’s reaction looked terrible in the photos. “The pain was definitely not the worst pain I have felt in my life,” she explained. “Maybe a 5 out of 10. It was mainly just really uncomfortable because it was so tight and there was lots of pressure. The swelling went away in about 3 days. Then the skin turned into a black scab, and then about a week after the initial swelling, the scab started peeling off, revealing fresh brand new lip underneath! It has been normal ever since.”
Invasive plants are persistent and management efforts may take years before complete eradication is seen. The infestation in the Village of Speculator is on our radar and will be checked during the upcoming summer months for re-growth. Any stragglers will be treated with herbicide.
If you think you spot giant hogweed, do not touch the plant. Contact APIPP (518-576-2082), the NYS DEC (1-845-256-3111), or the HCSWCD (518-548-3991, email@example.com) for assistance.