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Extension Horticulturist Warns of Giant Hogweed

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It won’t jump out and bite, as University of Maine Cooperative Extension professor Lois Berg Stack says, but anyone brushing up against and breaking open the robust hairs on the leaves of the giant hogweed plant might think it did.

Giant Hogweed leavesRelatively unknown to most people until several news articles recently surfaced, giant hogweed is an unusually large flowering weed resembling “Queen Anne’s lace on steroids,” according to state horticulturist Ann Gibbs, that can cause severe skin and eye irritation, painful blisters and permanent scarring from the burns it can cause when exposed to sunlight.

Stack, an ornamental horticulture specialist, is available to discuss ways to identify and control or eradicate giant hogweed from backyards, on dry well-drained property and at the sides of roads.

Giant hogweed has been reported in more than 30 sites around Maine, mostly along the coast from Hancock to York counties, according to Stack. The plant is on the federal noxious weeds list because it is so hazardous to humans. Stack considers it an invasive species.

“The USDA is interested in controlling this plant because it’s a human health hazard. If it were on my property, I would cut it down at the very least,” Stack says. “I would cut off the flower heads so you can control the seeds.”

In spite of its toxicity when on skin and exposed to sunlight, horticulturists say the plant, which is native to the Caucasus Mountains in Russia, was grown in Victorian-era gardens in the United States because of its unusual size and attractiveness. Giant Hogweed can grow 14 feet tall, has a white lacy flower head measuring more than a foot in diameter, with a series of smaller flower heads beneath it. The plant’s leaves can be 2 feet or more long, according to Stack.

Giant Hogweed flower“It’s a plant that, once you’ve seen it, you will never mistake it for anything else,” she says. The leaves, she adds, “are very distinct and easily distinguished from other plants’ leaves. They’re very lobed with a lot of silvery markings.”

Stack advises that property owners who do discover and want to remove giant hogweed from their property might consider cutting the plants at night or when the sun isn’t out, and wear gloves and long sleeved clothing.

“The plants have robust hairs and glands,” she says. Sap on skin only burns under sunlight, she says, but can cause irreversible scarring.

Lois Berg Stack can be reached at (207) 581-2949 for additional information.

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