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A plant that burns and blinds could make its way here, experts say

Brandon Paykamian • Jun 24, 2018 at 6:47 PM

The giant hogweed plant, Heracleum mantegazzianum, is a large, invasive plant that can cause severe burns and vision loss. 

Contact with the plant — which can be identified by its clusters of white flowers and large, towering purple stalks — can cause painful blisters and phytophotodermatitis, making skin extremely sensitive to sunlight for years after exposure.

A plant that can burn and blind you might sound like something out of a science fiction or horror movie, but this plant, which originated in the Caucasus region of Eurasia, is invading the United States.

The University of Tennessee Department of Agriculture lists the plant as one of Appalachia’s invasive weeds. The Tennessee Invasive Plant Council also listed the plant as an emerging threat last year due to its proximity in neighboring states, according to Tennessee Division of Forestry Forest Health and Sustainability Unit Leader Heather Slayton.

“It was put on that list because of its proximity in places like Western North Carolina,” she said. “A lot of these invasive plants have aggressive ways of moving into areas and taking hold.”

In 2011, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation reported thousands of sightings of the plant as it rapidly spread through the state. They set up a help hotline for people who came into contact with the plant and urged residents to report sightings. 

Until recently, there were no reported sightings in Virginia. The plant, which can sometimes grow up to 15 feet, had been mainly found in New England, the Mid-Atlantic coastal region and the Northwestern United States.

But last week, there were dozens of sightings of this large, poisonous plant in Clarke County, Isle of Wight County and other areas of Virginia.

So does this mean hikers and outdoor enthusiasts in Northeast Tennessee will have to keep an eye out for the plant any time soon?

“Not yet,” according to Johnson City Parks and Recreation Nature Coordinator Connie Deegan.

“There is no giant hogweed here yet,” she said, adding that some people in Tennessee have reported seeing the plant. “Sometimes folks confuse it with water hemlock, which looks similar. A lot of people are like, ‘Oh that's it!’”

But discovering this poisonous plant in Northeast Tennessee could be a matter of time, Deegan said. 

“The habitat it’s found in over in North Carolina is quite similar to our temperate forests,” she said. “So it’s a matter of it being carried here inadvertently. As far as timeline, I couldn’t tell you. Sometimes it happens quickly and sometimes it happens slowly, even though it’s next door.”

If or when it does come to Northeast Tennessee, it’s important to stay clear of the plant, according to Slayton.

“Personally, I’ve never laid eyes on it in Tennessee,” Slayton said. “We would hope it doesn’t make it here, but we have a lot of eyes on the ground and we’ll be at the forefront of it if it shows up in Tennessee.”

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