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Giant Hogweed Reminds Us That Not All Plants Are Harmless... (Interesting Science)


In the UK we often think of plants as just beautiful scenery, hardly likely to cause any health problems worse than hay fever, but one man has learned the hard way that this isn’t always the case.

In the 19th Century, Victorians introduced Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum), a plant native to Georgia and the Caucasus mountains in Southern Russia, into their gardens and greenhouses. They had every intention of keeping this plant for personal collections and display, however it didn’t take long for the appropriately-named Herculean species to spread into the countryside.

Giant Hogweed sap contains toxic chemicals called photosensitising furanocoumarins. When these chemicals come into contact with skin, they react with direct sunlight causing extreme blistering and, on contact with eyes, blindness. These chemicals prevent the skin from protecting itself against sunlight, leaving the affected area exposed to severe sunburn. 

Dean Simmons, a horticulturist by trade, had to be treated in hospital after a fishing trip went badly wrong: his leg was exposed to the sap and no more than 48 hours later, he was being given morphine to cope with the pain.

Giant Hogweed is found near waterways, rivers and canal banks, so if you’re a fishing enthusiast now very conscious of this not-so-harmless plant, remember: if you come into physical contact with the sap, protect the affected area from sunlight and wash with soap and water as soon as possible!

(Image Source)

- Emily Hardy BSc

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