What to do if you have giant hogweed in your garden or if you touch it

Giant hogweed has hit headlines again this week, after the invasive plant has been spotted once again in the UK – this time a month earlier in the year than it normally sprouts.

A mild winter and widespread flooding earlier this year is thought to have caused the early resurgence of this potentially harmful plant across Britain and caused it to have an even greater presence in fields, woodlands and even local allotments. 

Heracleum mantegazzianum – to give it its proper name – is part of the same family as parsley, carrot, parsnip, cumin and coriander, but is certainly not something you’d want on your dinner.

Not only is an invasive species, as it grows up to ten feet tall and out-compete native wildlife, the sap of giant hogweed can also cause severe burns if touched, making it extremely dangerous.

The defence mechanism of the plant means that when you come into contact with the plant it can release its noxious sap onto your skin. This sap then sensitises in sunlight, causing burns and blisters that can recur for months or even years.

How to identify giant hogweed

Giant hogweed looks very similar to the plant cow parsley, but is much bigger.

The Woodland Trust states, ‘it can reach towering heights of between 1.5m to 5m and have a spread of between 1 and 2m. It forms a rosette of jagged, lobed leaves in the first year before sending up a flower spike in the second year and then setting seed.’

They state that you should look out for the following:

Stems: green with purple blotches and stiff, white hairs. Stems are hollow with ridges and have a thick circle of hairs at base of each leaf stalk.

Leaves: huge, up to 1.5m wide and 3m long and is deeply divided into smaller leaflets. It looks a bit like a rhubarb leaf, with irregular and very sharp or jagged edges – which has given rise to one of its other common names – wild rhubarb. The underside of the leaf is hairy.

Flowers: appear in June and July. They are small and white (or slightly pink) and are clustered on umbrella-like heads known as umbels that can reach a diameter of 60cm. All the flowers on the umbel face upwards.

Seeds: dry, flattened, and oval. Almost 1cm long with tan with brown lines extending 3/4 of the seed length.’

To tell it apart from regular hogweed, as well as the size difference you should look at the leaves. Giant hogweed has much more jagged leaves compared to those on hogweed which are rounded in appearance.

Ground elder and cow parsley also have similar white flower clusters that show in an umbel shape. But again, check the leaves.

Cow parsley leaves are more feathery in appearance (like a fern) while those of ground elder are pinnate (which means the shape of a drop or feather).

What to do if you touch giant hogweed

To avoid touching hogweed in the first place, you’re advised to be careful when walking through areas it may be present – particularly river banks or woods. Keep an eye out for the plant.

If you do accidentally touch it, however, wash the area thoroughly as soon as you can, and keep the affected area out of sunlight.

Then, contact a medical professional (whether this is 111 or your local GP) as soon as possible, as you may need further treatment.

How to get rid of giant hogweed

Removing giant hogweed from your property isn’t as simple as doing a bit of gardening.

Mowing or using a weed-whacker on the plant won’t get rid of it, as this will only stimulate further growth. Not only this, it may also spray its toxic sap into the air, potentially causing injury.

Although you aren’t required to remove it under The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, you could be in trouble if you intentionally grow or cultivate giant hogweed.

To remove the plants, wear gloves and a protective mask (as well as covering your skin and wearing goggles in you have them) to pull them from the ground.

This is preferably done around May, when the plants are of reasonable height to pull but haven’t yet flowered.

You could also use a strong weedkiller such as Roundup Tree Stump & Rootkiller to remove the plant. Spray first between May and June, and again between August and September to get rid of any remains.

Ensure these strong weedkillers don’t enter streams or waterways.

Giant hogweed is considered a controlled waste, so you have to then dispose of it properly.

Don’t simply put in the bin, as this might not control the infestation. You can either get a permit to dispose of the waste in a licensed landfill from your local council, or burn the plants (safely, of course).

Taking on giant hogweed by yourself might be worth your time and effort if you have a very small infestation, but in cases where your garden is overgrown with it or you’re worried for your safety, it’s always better to leave it to the professionals.

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