A huge, dangerous invasive flower has been spreading across America. In June, the plant made its first appearances in Virginia, intimidating residents. “We’ve been getting calls and emails with parents afraid to let their children outside,” Elaine Lidholm, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Agriculture told .
The plant is the giant hogweed: up to 15 feet tall, with white flowers that bloom to the size of an umbrella, and sap that can cause third-degree burns if not treated immediately. The sap contains a class of chemicals that absorb specific wavelengths of light. Its molecules can cause DNA damage and cell death in skin cells, and the longer you spend in the sun, the worst they get, causing second and third-degree burns. If you get the toxic sap in your eyes, it can make you go blind.
The hogweed isn’t just a threat to humans: it’s also damaging to agricultural environments around it. It can reduce plant diversity so much that it can’t support native wildlife communities, and its massive size means it steals sunlight from smaller, lower growing plants. Getting rid of hogweeds is no easy task. Not only does it seed prolifically, but it grows a car-sized tuberous root that can be difficult to dislodge. “If you cut down the plant before it’s had a chance to flower, it’s smart enough to know that and it will come back the next year,” David Marrison, an Ohio State Extension scientist told Wired.
The hogweed started to spread in the U.S. during the mid-1900s, moving across New York state to Pennsylvania, Ontario, and Michigan. Today, it grows in over a dozen states. The hogweed found in Virginia were all planted intentionally, at first. But even planned hogweeds can go wild: one planted specimen spread seeds across a pond, and sprouted over a 100 new plants. Virginia agencies believe its growth sites are still contained, but if left unchecked, the flowers can easily overrun neighborhoods.
If you think you spot a hogweed, it’s better to be safe than sorry: snap a photo with the plant next to someone for scale, mark your GPS location, and send it to agricultural officials later. And if you do accidentally graze it, wash it off and get out of the sun as quickly as possible. Godspeed.