Usually, the phone calls sent to the Education Department involve birds. We call out, “Stupid bird question on line one.” Of course, the questions are rarely stupid and we actually enjoy the break in our day… a chance to help someone with a Real Puzzle or Problem.
A couple of weeks ago, it wasn’t a bird question, though. It was a flower question. A very nice lady from Lakewood, NY called and described in excellent detail a flower that is growing in her backyard – at the back of the mowed bit – just in the tree line separating her property from her neighbor’s. I was pretty sure from her description that she had a rather nasty, noxious plant called Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) … which I had only read about and never seen. I asked if I might drop by to see it. She said, “Yes, of course.” I advised her not to touch it or try to remove it as it could give her a nasty reaction.
It was, just as she described it, about seven feet tall. Giant Hogweed can get to be as high as fifteen feet, according to the literature. The flat cluster of white flowers reminds you of Queen Anne’s Lace – but it is much bigger and does not have the curly bracts underneath.
I found some literature for the discoverer of the plant. I also called the DEC Hogweed Hotline where I was able to leave a message on the voice mail. The answering machine voice told me that this is their busy season and it may take a while to get back to me… As of this writing, it has been about two weeks and I haven’t heard a thing yet.
According to the Michigan Department of Agriculture, Giant Hogweed was probably brought to Europe and North America from it’s native range in Central and South Asia to be used as an ornamental in gardens. It’s large size made it unique and appealing to gardeners with a penchant for the exotic. Seeds spread by wind and water, and the plant can also spread from the strong root stock, so the plants we now find along roadsides, railbeds, and stream banks are most likely escapees from someone’s garden.
Unfortunately, it is not a happy match for humans. Get sap on your skin and then expose that skin to sun and you are likely to break out in a nasty rash. Get the sap in your eyes and you may suffer temporary or even permanent blindness!
I have mixed feelings. While I’m happy to have finally seen this plant in person, I’m not happy that it is growing in Chautauqua County!