Invasive giant hogweed, which can burn and blind, was here all along

By: - July 17, 2018 6:00 am

Corey Childs, an extension agent in the northern Shenandoah Valley, collected giant hogweed samples from a site in Clarke County in June for the Massey Herbarium at Virginia Tech. Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech.

Giant hogweed’s sap causes third-degree burns. If it gets in your eyes it can blind you.

And this summer, there’s been a run of sightings around Virginia.

The most recent came last week, when an incoming Virginia Tech freshman who was doing landscaping work in Spotsylvania County was hospitalized with third-degree burns.

Alarming, yes. But state officials say it’s unlikely that the plant is suddenly spreading around Virginia, as some news coverage has suggested. Instead, they say it was here all along — biding its time from when the plant was sold commercially as an ornamental in landscaping and gardens.

“It likes cool weather, and we think that’s why it has suddenly popped up,” said Elaine Lidholm, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “The people who thought they had eradicated it have to wait 15 years to find out for sure because the seed life is that long.

“And with the long, wet spring, it’s like, ‘Finally, our happy place,’ and it’s popping up in places where people didn’t know they had it.”

Scientists at Virginia Tech had a similar take. Michael Flessner, an assistant professor and extension weed-science specialist, noted that the weeds were planted intentionally decades ago and, in years since, have not spread.

The plant is native to the western Caucasus Mountains and was introduced to the United States in the 19th century.

“It doesn’t appear to be spreading on its own. It’s just growing where we planted it,” Flessner said.

He theorized that news coverage in early June of the first confirmed case since the state began regulating the plant as a Tier One noxious weed — which means it can’t be legally sold or transported — prompted more people to take notice of hogweed.

So far, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has confirmed three sightings this summer, one each in Clarke, Fauquier and Rockingham counties. Two more likely sightings were reported in the city of Alexandria and Spotsylvania County.

State officials ask that anyone who believes they have found giant hogweed contact either the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services or the Virginia Cooperative Extension.

To confirm cases, the VDAC sends an inspector who will provide advice regarding the plant’s removal.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.