False hogweed reports prompt warning about noxious weed

If you think you have hogweed in your yard, you probably don't.

Umbel inflorescence of giant hogweed.
Umbel inflorescence of giant hogweed. (University of Connecticut’s Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group)

But people still should report possible sightings of the enormous, toxic weed to Donna Ellis, an expert in pest management at the University of Connecticut's Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture. Ellis has been looking at people's pictures and listening to their description of the plants they see for more than 15 years as a member of the Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group.

"I've probably had 200 inquiries in June and July," Ellis said.

Most of the state's known patches of hogweed have been eliminated as more gardeners learn to recognize and report the plant, which emits a sap that can cause large painful blisters and extreme skin sensitivity if people touch it. It also can cause blindness if it comes in contact with eyes.

It can grow up to 15 feet tall with 5-foot-long leaves. The stem is hollow and can reach four inches in diameter, and the plant blooms with small white flowers in an umbrella shape that can be up to 2.5 feet across.

The plant — Latin name Heracleum mantegazzianum — first was seen in Connecticut in 2001 and since has been spotted in 25 towns across all of the state's eight counties, but Ellis said new plants haven't been recorded officially in Connecticut since 2011.

Still, anytime hogweed is in the news — like earlier this summer, when hogweed was spotted in Virginia for the first time and a run-in with the plant gave a teenager there second- and third-degree burns — she starts getting calls. Hundreds of calls, from everyone from homeowners to officials at state agencies like the Department of Transportation.

Only one of the reports actually has been confirmed as hogweed, but that caller had found a patch that Ellis already knew about. The homeowner has tried to get rid of it but, in addition to being toxic, hogweed is persistent: the seeds can remain, further spreading the plants to new areas.

Everyone else who called had seen one of the many species that look similar to hogweed, which include cow parsnip, which to the untrained eye is nearly identical; angelica, which has slightly greener flowers and a different leaf shape; Queen Anne's Lace, which has similar flowers to hogweed but is much smaller, and wild lettuce, which is tall like hogweed but has smaller leaves.

"Not everyone's a botanist," Ellis said. So she doesn't mind when people call or send in photos through an online form on the working group's website, even when it's in the hundreds. She knows the steps for removing hogweed by heart — never let it touch skin, cut the flower head off and bag it before covering the soil with black plastic — and she'll tell them to anyone who asks.

"These are good educational opportunities. Now they know what they have, and they can at least not worry too much about it," she said.

m.shanahan@theday.com

How to report hogweed

Fill out the form at bit.ly/CTHogweed and attach photos.

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