From: Emily Sohn, Discovery News
Published July 20, 2011 07:24 AM

Giant, Toxic Weed Poses Health Risk

It's exotic and beautiful, a 15-foot tall plant with clusters of dainty white flowers and human-sized leaves -- resembling, it is often said, Queen Anne's Lace on steroids.


But giant hogweed is an invasive species that is spreading around much of the northern United States. Even worse, its sap is extremely poisonous, with the potential to cause blistering burns and even blindness.

Now that the giant hogweed's flowering season is here again, experts are taking the opportunity to draw people's attention to the plant -- for the sake of human health as well as for the health of the environment.

"It's one of the few invasive species that has such a severe human health impact, and people should really know about it," said Chuck O'Neill, coordinator of the Cornell Cooperative Extension Invasive Species Program in Ithaca, NY. "Unfortunately, I'd say 80 or 90 percent of people hiking have no idea what these plants look like."

"Like the zebra mussel, they can be a poster child for invasive species," he added. "There's a certain appeal to a plant that's this big with that cringe factor of what it can do to you that gives you an opening to start talking about a lot more plants, animals and insects that are invasive."

The giant hogweed's story of invasion began in 1892, when two European brothers went on a botanical expedition to the Caucuses region of Eurasia, where they saw the plant for the first time, said botanist Naja Kraus, manager of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's Giant Hogweed Program. Wowed by its height and beauty, they brought its seeds back to Europe, along with a variety of other species.

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