An Invasive Plant That Can Cause Blindness Discovered in Virginia

A plant whose sap can cause blindness has been found growing in abundance in Virginia. (Image:  Fritz Geller-Grimm  via  flickr  CC BY-SA 3.0)
A plant whose sap can cause blindness has been found growing in abundance in Virginia. (Image: Fritz Geller-Grimm via flickr CC BY-SA 3.0)

When Robert Emma from Berryville, Virginia, saw some weird looking plants growing near his home, he was skeptical and a little alerted. These plants were taller than an average human being, had jagged feet that were around five feet in width, and also sported thorns.

So he called up Mark Sutphin, a well-known agricultural expert at Virginia Tech. After careful inspection, he cut down the plant using goggles and a Tyvek suit, and took it back to his lab. Mark identified the plant as the notorious Giant Hogweed, which was known to be quite dangerous to human beings. Its sap has the potential to burn the skin and even lead to blindness if it infects the eyes

The Invasive Species website also warned local residents to watch out for the plant. “Be careful if you encounter this invasive plant! The clear watery sap of Giant Hogweed contains toxins that can cause dermatitis (inflammation of the skin). It can cause burns if you get the sap on your skin and the skin is then exposed to sunlight”, tweeted Invasive Species.

The Giant Hogweed

The Giant Hogweed, scientifically known as Heracleum mantegazzianum, is a plant native to central Asia and Caucasus. It was first introduced into the West in 19th century England. Later, the plant was imported to the U.S. for ornamental purposes.

The U.S. government has officially categorized the Giant Hogweed as a noxious weed. And it is illegal to bring this plant into U.S. soil or even move it between different states. If caught with any such activities, the person will be punished. Only by obtaining a permit from the Department of Agriculture can one actually import the plant into the U.S.

However, despite how decorative the plant might look, the fact remains unchanged that it can harm human beings. And children are very vulnerable to it, as they might mistake it for any other plant and get hurt in the process.

“Skin reactions vary, but phytophotodermatitis can occur, meaning the sap makes the skin so sensitive to sunlight tha … burns can occur from normal exposure to sun… Symptoms include painful blisters, which become darkly pigmented and can cause scars. Your skin can remain sensitive to sunlight for many years after exposure as well. And if the sap gets in your eyes, there is the potential for blindness,” The Washington Post quoted a statement released by the Isle of Wight County.

Symptoms include painful blisters, which become darkly pigmented and can cause scars. (Image: Lamiot via flickr CC BY-SA 3.0)

Symptoms include painful blisters, which become darkly pigmented and can cause scars. (Image: Lamiot via flickr CC BY-SA 3.0)

The damaging skin effects are mostly because of the furanocoumarin derivatives in the plant, which can cause the cells to die by bonding with the DNA. And the skin turns brownish since the chemical triggers the production of melanin.

If found, it is advised that homeowners do not try to remove it by themselves. Instead, call your state’s department of agricultural or cooperative extension service to get help in finding local experts to remove the weed. And in case you decide to take matters into your hands, remember to use eye protection and protective clothing so that your skin and eyes do not get burned by the sap. Also, keep children and pets well away from the plant.

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