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Giant hogweed can be a giant problem

    FINGER LAKES—Giant hogweed is an impressive plant—and also an invasive one. Native to the Caucasus mountain region of Eurasia, specifically to the Georgian Republic and Azerbaijan, where its seeds are used as a spice, it made its way west where it became an invasive species. It can easily grow 12-20 feet high, with an umbrel of flower clusters like Queen Anne’s Lace—which can reach the size of a dinner table.
    Heracleum mantegazzianum or giant hogweed is classified as “invasive” because it is non-native to the ecosystem, is likely to cause harm economically, environmentally and to human health. For more than a decade, crews from the department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), state and local highway departments and private property owners have spent uncounted amounts of money and time to stop hogweed in its tracks.
   Of greatest concern is the risk to human health—toxic chemicals in the plant’s sap, known as furanocoumarins, cause blisters and up to third-degree burns, a process amplified by sunlight. In other words, it’s the opposite of sunscreen. These burns can last for several months, resulting in scarring and several years of extreme sensitivity to sun. If the sap gets into the eyes, it can cause blindness. It is also toxic to cats, dogs and horses.
And it also spreads easily, having left its enemies behind when it left its native environment. A single plant can produce up to 50,000 seeds, which can remain viable for seven years. It is not only at home in gardens and waste areas, where the seeds may be spread by birds or wind; it also likes stream banks, which means the seeds may travel downstream on the water.
    The bad news is that it is a presence in New York State. The good news is that eradication programs are winning. DEC programs offered to Cooperative Extension and highway department personnel have helped spread an awareness of hogweed’s dangers as well as methods it may be safely destroyed.
Naja Kraus, a botanist who serves as Giant Hogweed Program Coordinator for the New York State DEC, says in this area, Steuben County leads the area in giant hogweed sites with a whopping 86 sites, 30 in Yates County, 27 in Ontario County and 19 in Schuyler County. One new site discovered last year is the only one in Chemung County.
    “Once we find a site, we have the property owner sign a permission form to give us access to the property, and we will either control their site for as long as we can, or train them to do it. Then we visit it for three additional years.” There are six crews statewide dedicated to giant hogweed eradication, in a program funded this year through August. The crew covering Yates and Steuben Counties is based at the DEC office in Avon. “We wear full waterproof gear—full Tyvek suits, long waterproof gloves to our elbows, goggles, and hats that provide shade and cover your neck,” she says, describing their protective gear. “The only part exposed is a little skin on your face. As soon as we’re done, we wash thoroughly with soap and water.”
     Not sure about a large, mysterious weed in your yard? You can call the giant hogweed hotline at 845-256-3111 or check the DEC’s website Here you will also find information about emailing photos of your problem plant to a botanist who will identify it for you.
    In addition to the DEC crews, who mostly help private property owners, highway departments have trained their crews, particularly those who mow, to take a close look at roadside vegetation. “If it’s there, we have to deal with it,” says David Hartman, Yates County Highway Superintendent. “We’ve known about this for years.” Hartman says he’s carefully dug out many giant hogweed plants, sometimes by hand, other times using equipment like an excavator to make sure the entire plant is removed. The culprit is deposited and eventually buried to compost along with the dirt dug out of ditches, tree stumps and other organic debris. “The guys are very aware of it,” Hartman says. “We haven’t seen any for a couple of years [in the Penn Yan area]. But if we did see some, we’d contact the homeowner and advise them, make sure they’re aware of it.”
    “We’ve got several areas along the roadways in the town of Jerusalem where we’ve had it coming up,” says Robert Payne, highway superintendent for the town of Jerusalem. “The DEC has come in and cut the blossoms off to control it to some degree, but I’ve seen some evidence of it starting back up again. I’ve got a list of areas where we’ve experienced it. In areas where we’ve mowed roadsides, they’ve chopped it down before it got too large. Talking to the DEC they said to cut off with a shovel at the root-base.” Payne says he himself has done this, wearing gloves and being careful to not touch the plant.
    “It starts out as a very green jagged leaf of pretty decent size and it looks very different from anything else growing in that area,” he says. “We try to keep an eye out for invasive species.”
    Jim Balyszak, district manager for Yates County Soil and Water Conservation, notes there’s been a fair amount of information distributed, by Cornell Cooperative Extension and the DEC, making the public more hogweed-aware. “I think some problems were taken care of by individual property owners,” he says. “Over the years I’ve seen less and less.”




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