A Big Nasty Plant That Burns Like Hell Has Been Discovered in Virginia for the First Time

Look but definitely don’t touch.
Photo: Natubico (Wikimedia Commons)

A towering invasive plant capable of scarring anyone unlucky enough to touch its toxic sap is cropping back up in the U.S. And for the first time ever, it’s been spotted in the state of Virginia.

The toxic plant, aptly known as the giant hogweed, was first introduced to North America from its native home of Asia sometime around the early 20th century. It was originally intended as a decorative plant, but it had other ideas. In areas where it likes to grow, such as open woodlands or alongside rivers and steams, the giant hogweed, which can reach heights of 20 feet, quickly crowds out the surrounding plant life and deprives them of precious sunlight.


And though it may look pretty, the giant hogweed is dangerous to touch. Its clear, watery sap has toxins that, when exposed to sunlight and moisture, irritate and burn the skin. Usually, the damage is nothing more than blisters that lasts for a few days, but there have been confirmed cases of people developing purplish, permanent scars from hogweed sap. While hogweed is often blamed for forever blinding people, though, there doesn’t seem to be any documented case of that ever happening, only people theorizing about its potential to do so.

Though typically confined to the northeastern U.S. and parts of Canada since its introduction, the plant has been slowly spreading elsewhere. Earlier this June, on social media, scientists from the Massey Herbarium at Virginia Tech reported identifying the first instance of a giant hogweed in Clarke County. That same day, they later clarified there were actually 30 plants in the area.


The sighting has since been officially confirmed by state officials, the AP reported Monday.


The giant hogweed, part of the carrot family of all things, typically lives around 3 to 5 years. It usually lies dormant in the winter, only to sprout leaves anew in the spring and summer during its first year of life. Later on in its life cycle, the plant also produces distinctive, beautiful white flowers at the top that obscure its toxicity.

Exaggerated blindness fears aside, the hogweed is a legitimate nuisance that ecologists are rightfully worried about. In Virginia, it’s one of three Tier 1 noxious weeds, meaning it’s considered a major threat to the surrounding agricultural environment. In states where it’s become endemic, the plant is routinely exterminated and monitored to make sure it doesn’t get out of control.


Before it dies, each single hogweed plant is capable of releasing up to 120,000 seeds that can travel long distances through water and wind before finding a new home. But luckily, there doesn’t seem to be a Day of the Triffids situation going on here. State officials have determined the hogweed in Clarke County was intentionally planted decades ago by a previous owner of the residence as a garden ornamental.

“It’s a dangerous plant but I’m not overly concerned about it. This seems to be an isolated incident,” Michael Flessner, an assistant professor and extension weed science specialist at Virginia Tech, told VTNews.


That said, there have other reported sightings of hogweed within the state, though these haven’t been officially confirmed.

If you think you’ve come across some giant hogweed, the last thing you should try to do is remove it yourself. Instead, you should report sightings to your state’s conservation officials or your local university’s agriculture department so they can safely do it. Because giant hogweed can be mistaken for other common plants (some of which can cause milder irritation if touched), though, you might be inclined to consult any number of identification guides first. One tip is that giant hogweeds have purple splotches along their stem.


[AP, VTNews]

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About the author

Ed Cara

Science writer at Gizmodo and pug aficionado elsewhere