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Giant hogweed comes to Vermont

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Posted on August 4, 2011 |
By Andrew Stein



ADDISON COUNTY — What could be worse than poison parsnip taking over local fields of Queen Anne’s lace?

Possibly the arrival of its big, bad, cousin giant hogweed, which causes second degree burns similar to poison parsnip when its sap comes in contact with one’s skin and the sun.

Native to the Caucasus Mountains in Western Asia and Eastern Europe, the plant that is in the same biological family as parsnip. Giant hogweed is believed to have been brought to Britain in the 19th century for its large white ornamental flowers, similar to Queen Anne’s lace.

“It’s a lot bigger than Queen Anne’s lace,” said Tim Schmalz, Vermont plant pathologist for the Agency of Agriculture. “Queen Anne’s lace tends to be fairly delicate in its appearance. Giant hogweed – the operative word is ‘giant’ – has leaves up to five feet in diameter. They’re not kidding when they say it’s giant.”

Giant hogweed, just like parsnip, needs to have its stems or leaves broken to harm humans. Only when its sap touches skin and meets ultra-violet light can it cause a chemical burn.

One pleasantry of this hostile Victorian flower is that it seems to be quite mannerly.

“It’s not particularly invasive in the sense that it overruns fields like Japanese knot leaf ... it’s more well behaved than those other plants,” said Schmalz. “By nature of its size it does crowd out competition ... it produces prolific seeds, but they don’t travel very far. They do float so infestations tend to spread along water. Infestations that I’ve noticed haven’t gotten appreciably larger in the six to eight years that I’ve studied it.”

Although he said that giant hogweed is widely distributed across the state, Schmalz hasn’t seen or heard of anyone getting burned by it. Additionally, none of the local plant experts that the Independent contacted could decidedly point to a precise location of this plant in the county.

Landowners can probably tell quickly if giant hogweed were on their property, Schmalz said.

“If you don’t get the feeling that you’re in the presence of a giant, otherworldly plant, you don’t have it,” he said. “It’s huge. The leaves are so huge they’d cover your desk.”

Reporter Andrew Stein is at andrews@addisonindependent.com.

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