July 3 2018 12:00 AM

Toxic weed found in Virginia, but experts say there's no need for worry.

Giant hogweed plant

It’s pretty but dangerous: toxic giant hogweed has been confirmed in three Virginia counties, according to a story published on TV station WTKR’s website. It’s also been spotted in Upstate New York, but experts are saying there’s no need for panic.

Virginia Tech experts have confirmed an additional site in Alexandria based on photographs. But plant experts there and at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) said that although the presence of giant hogweed has been confirmed in multiple locations, there is no evidence that the dangerous weed with the toxic sap is spreading widely.

Why the concern? When exposed to skin, the sap from a giant hogweed plant can cause severe skin and eye irritation, painful blistering and potentially permanent scarring. Unfortunately, it’s easily confused with lookalike plants such as cow parsnip, elderberry and others. If you think you’ve spotted giant hogweed, you should take a digital photo of the leaf, stem and flower, being careful to avoid skin contact with the plant.

“There’s not cause for widespread worry,” said Virginia Tech’s Michael Flessner, an assistant professor and extension weed science specialist who has worked closely with Jordan Metzgar, curator of the Massey Herbarium at Virginia Tech, to identify that the plants are indeed giant hogweed and not a lookalike species. “It’s growing where it’s been planted from what we’ve seen. We see little evidence of it widely spreading,”

Giant hogweed shares some characteristics with cow parsnip, angelica and Queen Anne’s lace, but its size makes it stand out. It can grow up to 15 feet tall with leaves as large as five feet across. Most of the plants identified in Virginia have been five to 10 feet tall, with the largest leaves approximately two feet across. The white flower cluster contains 50 to 150 rays spreading up to two feet across. There also are purple splotches and sparse white hairs on the stem.

Virginia and New York are not the only states the toxic plant can find hospitable soil and climate to grow in. According to the NY state Department of Environmental Conservation, it can also take root in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Oregon, Washington, Michigan, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.