science of us

Just What We Need — a Pretty New Plant Trying to Blind Us

Photo: Dzurag/Getty Images/iStockphoto

A Virginia man named Robert Emma recently discovered an “intimidating” bunch of plants growing alongside his house, more than six feet tall with spiky leaves about five feet wide. His instinct, which turned out to be a very good one, was not to touch it. After recent examination by Mark Sutphin, an agricultural extension agent with Virginia Tech, Emma learned that the plants are giant hogweed, which produce toxic sap that can cause burns and blindness. (aahhhHHHHH!)

Though giant hogweed produces wide, pretty-ish white blooms, do not be fooled: the plant is considered a “tier one noxious weed,” one of just three plants classified as such in Virginia. This means it requires heavy regulation, and is extremely invasive. (Accordingly, “Tier One Noxious Weed” is also a great name for your ex.) That doesn’t mean the average citizen should treat it like an average garden weed, however; Sutphin was only able to remove the plant while wearing a Tyvek suit and goggles. Normally dressed Virginians who encounter the plant should contact their local Virginia Tech agricultural extension agent or the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, he said.

A single giant hogweed plant can produce 20,000 seeds (!), and officials are working to keep the problem contained. The plant found on Emma’s property was put there as an “ornamental” by a previous property manager, Sutphin said. In fact, the plant, which is originally native to Southeast Asia, only arrived in the United States in 1917, brought here by some dummy who thought it was cute. The plant is now common in New York state (AHHH), and has been found elsewhere in the Northeast, but this marks Virginia’s first sighting.

Jordan Metzgar, a curator at Virginia Tech’s Massey Herbarium who helped identify the plant, says that anyone who comes into contact with the giant hogweed’s sap (but please … just don’t) should wash with soap and water and stay out of the sun. The sap can cause “phytophotodermatitis,” which means it makes the skin hypersensitive to sunlight, leading to quick and painful burns. If you were to then touch your eyes with that sap on your hands, you could go blind. It’s tempting, I know, but seriously: do not touch a giant hogweed.

Just What We Need — a Pretty New Plant Trying to Blind Us