There is a monster among us. It stands up to 18 feet tall (6 meters), comes from China and lurks in our gardens ready to pounce upon the unsuspecting with toxins that can injure and permanently scar. No it’s not a 1950’s era horror movie, this one is real and is a growing problem in the BC Lower Mainland and Southwest BC. The monster is a large plant known as the Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum). It’s not a native BC plant but is spreading uncontrolled in the BC Lower Mainland. A good friend of mine recently fell victim to the monster and ended up hospitalized with severe burns that will now affect her for months to come. You need to know about this plant, how to recognize and deal with it because there is probably one growing near you!
The Giant Hogweed thrives in damp areas which is one of the reasons for it’s rapid growth in our area. Once established after a few years it blossoms forming large clusters of flowers as much as a meter in diameter. The primary area of concern is the sap which becomes toxic on contact with sunlight. Contact results in an irritation that can appear minutes or hours later. Children who play with the large hollow stems using them as telescopes for pea shooters will often fall victim to the toxin.
If you encounter Hogweed it’s important to protect yourself from the effects of the plant. Wear coveralls, gloves and make sure to protect your eyes. Wearing a respirator would also be a wise choice if available. You need to carefully cut down the plant, avoiding any contact with the sap. Seal the remnants in bags and dispose of them to the landfill, not in the separate yard waste. Several BC communities have established teams to help residents eradicate the plant, so a first step would be to contact your municipality. It would be better to let experts deal with this plant, if the service is available.
If you do come into contact with Hogweed, make sure to wash the area thoroughly to remove all traces of the sap and avoid direct sunlight for the next 48 hours to prevent activation of any remaining residue. If you develop a rash, use 0.5% Hydrocortisone cream on the affected area to minimize skin irritation. You should also use a strong sunblock on the affected area for the next several months. If you should happen to get the sap in your eyes, flush them with large amounts of water. Then cover your eyes or at least wear sunglasses and seek medical aid as quickly as possible.
Worksafe BC has an excellent video on the topic called Attack of the Giant Hogweed.