Attack of the giant hogweed

By Stephen Harris - For The Tribune
Stephen Harris Back In The Hometown -

In case you don’t have enough to worry about, now comes news that we’re under attack by a new breed of terrorist: giant hogweed.

“An evil creature straight out of a fairy tale,” as breathlessly described by the MSN news service of Microsoft, “and trust us, you should avoid it.”

This sounds like a bad science-fiction movie, but I am not making this up. Giant hogweed is a big flower that is classified by North Carolina and other states as a Class A noxious weed. State officials have banned them (I don’t think the hogweeds are paying attention, though) and have issued a call for anyone and everyone of us who sees these monsters to report it. (call (800) 206-9333 or e-mail

The state then will send in weed specialists — yes, there are such people — who will investigate and, if needed, spray Roundup.

These new terrorists look something like the cute little delicate Queen Anne’s lace white wildflowers that chiggers love. Those flowers are commonly found here in the hometown in pastures and along roadsides. As a kid I’d pick Queen Anne’s lace here – and once picked up a chigger.

But giant hogweed can grow higher than six feet with leaves more than three feet and flower heads up to 20 inches in diameter, according to N.C. Cooperative Extension.

“You should be cautious of any weed taller than you with a big white flower head,” advised Jim Hamilton, Cooperative Extension director in Watauga County.

That’s because giant hogweed packs a punch. Reminiscent of poison oak, giant hogweed has a sap that, when exposed to sunlight, can cause large, painful blisters similar to third-degree burns and can cause permanent scarring, according to Cooperative Extension, best known for its free garden advice.

“It makes your skin unable to protect itself from the sun,” Naja Kraus, giant hogweed program coordinator (how do you get that job?) for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, told MSN. It’s like sunscreen in reverse.

And if the sap gets in your eyes, it can blind you.

I’m no longer going to complain about those vines of poison oak that keep popping up every summer in back of my wild cherry tree on the edge of the tobacco field next door.

The wild part of this new tale of horror is that a cell of the herbaceous terrorists has been growing and thriving near Blowing Rock for years. An unwitting homeowner who liked the plants grew them and gave out seed to neighbors, according to the Boone newspaper.

A member of the carrot family — ugh, carrots; that’s enough to condemn giant hogweed right there — the plant is traced to the Middle East. In Iran they use it as a spice — another reason to hate it.

Giant hogweed came to Britain in the 19th Century and now it’s spread to here. There’s also an infestation in Caldwell County, according to Cooperative Extension. There was a scare in Lincoln County, but suspicious plants there turned out to be only meek Queen Anne’s lace. There have been other reports of infestations across the country.

Another concern is that the plant grows so big and so rapidly that it can crowd out native plants (oh no, another kudzu-style invader), damage wildlife habitat and aggravate erosion. Seeds can be carried by wind and water and spread in bird droppings.

“Property owners who think they spot giant hogweed should not panic,” Jordan Metzgar, curator of the Massey Herbarium at Virginia Tech, told a Richmond, Va., TV station.

Great. So now we have a plant taller than me that passes itself off as a pretty, white wildflower but burns you like poison oak and spreads like kudzu.

I think I’m about to panic.

Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.

Stephen Harris Back In The Hometown Harris Back In The Hometown

By Stephen Harris

For The Tribune