For weeks, Robert Emma wondered about the plants growing beside his new house. The flora, as many as 40 discrete plants, was “intimidating,” the amateur gardener said, with thorns and jagged leaves five feet wide. They stood taller — much taller — than a person, and cast a canopy of white blooms a yard wide.
“It definitely warrants a discussion, to say the least,” said Emma, of Berryville, Va. “If you saw this, you would think: ‘I’m not going to touch that.’ ”
This week, Emma’s instincts were proven right. He learned he is living beside a stand of giant hogweed, a toxic plant with sap that can cause burns and blindness, must be removed with protective gear and requires a permit to be moved across the state.
Mark Sutphin, an agricultural extension agent with Virginia Tech, said he wrangled a piece of Emma’s giant hogweed while wearing a Tyvek suit and goggles, then brought it back to the lab for identification.
“Don’t touch it,” he said. “Don’t cut it down unless you take extreme care.”
Emma’s plant, a notorious Virginia tier one noxious weed, is not alone in the commonwealth. Around the beginning of June, a Virginia Department of Transportation worker found another bunch of giant hogweed growing in Frederick County after quick-witted employees, recalling a U.S. Department of Agriculture warning about the plant some years ago, spotted it.
Now that there’s a confirmed sighting, we need to be on the lookout,” said Ken Slack, a VDOT spokesman. “We have to make sure folks don’t get into it … don’t go after it like a weed.”
Though common in New York state, which has spent millions fighting the plant, and elsewhere in the Northeast, the giant hogweeds in Berryville and Frederick County are the plant’s first known locations in Virginia. The Berryville patch was planted by a previous owner, as the blooms, in a simpler time, were considered decorative.
Jordan Metzgar, a curator at Virginia Tech’s Massey Herbarium, helped identify Emma’s giant hogweed. He said the plant is easily mistaken for cow parsnips, but gardeners who aren’t sure what they’re looking at should back away and contact their local Virginia Tech agricultural extension agent or the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs.