A harmless touch can result in severe burns, blisters, scars and even blindness.
Able to reach 20 feet in height with broad leaves that shade out the understory … native vegetation doesn’t stand a chance.
Fortunately, giant hogweed hasn’t turned up in Northeastern Pennsylvania, but it has been in the news lately.
The noxious, invasive plant was recently found in Virginia, in addition to New York and Pennsylvania — mainly in the northwest region of the state.
But what are the chances of giant hogweed arriving in Luzerne County?
Pretty slim, according to Wilkes University biology professor Ken Klemow.
“One way it could disperse into the Wyoming Valley is through a flood that carries seeds down the river, but I don’t see any of the plants in the Susquehanna River watershed,” said Klemow, who also serves on the Pennsylvania Biological Survey board. “I see it as a fairly low risk to this area.”
Still, the possibility of giant hogweed appearing in the area, or anywhere for that matter, isn’t being ruled out.
“When you look at the map it’s all around — New Jersey, Ohio, the Great Lakes — and there’s a chance for it to show up anywhere,” said Kelly Sitch, an ecologist with the state Bureau of Forestry.
“Invasive species can spread quickly and with giant hogweed, you’re talking about a plant that produces thousands of seeds.”
But there are aspects working against the spread of giant hogweed. Sitch pointed out that awareness among state agencies and the public is high so there are a lot of people watching for it. As its name entails, giant hogweed is an enormous plant so it’s unlikely to go unnoticed.
Sitch added that when the plant does turn up somewhere, officials are ready to deal with it quickly.
While Klemow said it’s unknown how giant hogweed appeared in Virginia, he ruled out the possibility of birds carrying seeds into Northeastern Pennsylvania, contending that such a scenario would cause a more localized spread of the plant.
About the only way that Klemow could envision giant hogweed establishing in the Wyoming Valley would be if seeds were carried in topsoil that was brought to the area.
“If we’re not careful about where we get our soil from, it can be a means of transport for invasives,” he said.
Sitch agreed and said topsoil or fill material may unknowingly contain hogweed seeds and be hauled to distant locations.
“If those seeds germinate, after two growing seasons you have a real big problem on your hands,” he said, adding to call a professional with the state Department of Agriculture or Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is you see giant hogweed.
“If it is giant hogweed, you don’t want to mess around with it until you know what you’re dealing with,” Sitch said. “There is nothing here on the scale of giant hogweed, not poison ivy or poison hemlock. Giant hogweed is in a class of its own.”
Still, there are a few plants present in the area that may lead some to mistakenly believe that giant hogweed is already here. A member of the carrot family, giant hogweed has several look-a-likes, including cow parsnip and purple-stemmed angelica.
Cow parsnip has a similar bloom of white flower clusters as giant hogweed, but Klemow said the leaves aren’t as broad or deeply lobed.
“Years ago in Kirby Park I found an enormous carrot family plant and thought it was giant hogweed, but it was cow parsnip,” he said.
Many plants in the carrot family, including cow parsnip and Queen Anne’s lace, contain the compound furanocoumarin that makes giant hogweed so dangerous. The compound causes the skin to become photo-sensitive, Klemow said, and when exposed to water or sunlight a rash can result.
“But cow parsnip and Queen Anne’s lace don’t have the same level of the compound that’s found in giant hogweed,” Klemow said.
Since giant hogweed hasn’t been found in Northeastern Pennsylvania and it’s unlikely to arrive, is the recent concern a bit of an over-reaction?
“If you become aware of these things, that’s good. But if all of the news about it makes people frightened to the point they don’t want to go outside or they want to cut down all vegetation, that’s when it goes too far,” Klemow said.
Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky