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Where Hogweed Takes Root, It’s Misery

Chicago Tribune

Farmer Settilio Codispoti hoped to fatten up his three little goats. He figured the towering, white-flowered weeds that encircled his barn would make great feed.

“The goats got funny,” the Italian immigrant said. “No produce milk, no produce kids, no do nothing. So I got rid of ‘em.”

Now Codispoti knows it was not the goats: He should have annihilated the weeds.

Giant hogweed -- which is on the federal noxious species list -- does more than make goats impotent. It causes burns and oozing blisters on legs and arms of people who come into contact with its sappy juice. It leaves folks crazed with itching. Discoloration on the skin can last a year.

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Hogweed, a renegade of the carrot family, has surfaced in Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin. When a botanist found a patch near Warsaw, Ind., in 2004, state natural resources crews went on high alert, obliterating the plants with shovels and chemicals.

“We made a stand and got really aggressive with this beast,” said Glenn Nice, a weed scientist at Purdue University. “It’s a real pest, and we don’t want it here.”

Known to botanists as Heracleum mantegazzianum, hogweed has centuries-old roots in the mountains of Eurasia. But it looks like something out of a rain forest.

Hogweed can grow twice as tall as a professional basketball center -- some 15 feet. Its hollow stem is as big around as a household water pipe and is accented by purple-reddish blotches.

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The weed produces a flat oval fruit that Iranians have long used as an anise-tasting cooking spice known as golmar. In a usual summer season, flowers from one hogweed plant produce 10,000 to 20,000 seeds that often spread by water.

To this day, hogweed remains a royal pain in Britain. In Europe it is known as the “giant alien.”

In London, hogweed threatens to hogtie construction for the 2012 Summer Olympics. Thousands of the weeds are choking sites planned for several competitions. The weeds will have to be chopped and burned to prevent their spread.

In North America, Hogweed drew notice in the early 1900s in an Upstate New York arboretum. Rich tourists seeking to spruce up their gardens likely carried it there from Britain, experts said.

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“It was praised as a beautiful exotic plant and highly admired,” said Melissa Bravo, a state weed scientist in Pennsylvania who keeps tabs on hogweed infestations.

Today, even though it’s against the law to transport and propagate hogweed, federal agriculture officials suspect that ornamentalists -- their term for gardeners -- find the plant irresistible and carry it across state lines. That makes the pattern of hogweed movement difficult to predict.

“People see it and go ‘ahhh’ and love to just pick it up and take it home,” said David Marrison, an educator with the Ohio State University Extension office in Ashtabula County, Ohio.

Now officials are fighting hogweed on two fronts and in 14 states.

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In the Pacific Northwest, hogweed moved south from British Columbia. It has inundated the Seattle area and is moving through Oregon. In the Northeast, hogweed has progressed westward.

Hogweed has overrun rural areas around Erie, Pa., where it spread in the sewer system and has been found in 312 locations. In recent months, sightings have increased in Ohio -- alarming residents and state officials. This summer it was found in the Cleveland area.

A national poison-control clearinghouse lists 158 cases of hogweed exposure from 2001 to 2005, but most incidents are likely unreported, experts said.

Anyone who has tangled with hogweed has come to regret it.

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Carol Masek, 54, of Cleveland was visiting a friend’s rural property in northeast Ohio in June. She delved into a field of weeds with a weed whacker. Masek recalls encountering hogweed and marveling at its thick trunk and pretty flowers.

As she cut down the tall stalks, Masek unwittingly came into contact with hogweed’s poisonous sap lodged in the stems. The sap’s chemicals -- scientists call them furocoumarins -- rubbed on her skin. As her skin baked in the sun for two days, the resulting process was phytophotodermatitis.

“Nothing happened right away,” Masek said. “But then on the second night the rashes started.”

At first she assumed she had poison ivy. But the rash grew into burn-like blisters, Masek said. When she saw several news articles mentioning an outbreak of hogweed in Ohio, she realized she was a victim.

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Over-the-counter cortisone cream didn’t help, she said. Neither did a visit to an emergency room. She finally persuaded a doctor to treat her with cortisone pills. Before the wounds subsided, Masek said, the itching was so bad that she could not sleep.

Two months later, Masek said, scars remain on her legs and chest.

Federal and state health officials say they do not keep statistics on injuries from hogweed, and doctors are slow to connect the symptoms with the plant. Often people don’t realize that their malady came from hogweed contact, officials said. Children who have used hogweed stems as playful blowguns have ended up with red rings around their mouths.

As for farmer Codispoti, he figures it will take six years to eradicate the hogweed around his barn with herbicides. He has piles of dead hogweed on his land, and he makes sure to shoo away gawkers who may try to snatch a plant for posterity. A new baby goat, Snowball, is tied to a nearby tree. Codispoti vows to keep the little guy away from the giant hogweed.

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“I know better now,” he said.


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