New York has a big problem with an invasive species you may have never heard of. Giant hogweed is a poisonous plant that can overtake entire fields with its giant leaves and can cause painful blisters on a person's skin. But the state Department of Environmental Conservation says it's stepping up its digging and spraying program to help control the plant and even eradicate it in some spots.
Allen Chase walks a trail leading from Oswego's Rice Creek Field Station into the surrounding woods. Birds chirp and bugs whiz about as we get closer to an area marked by several small, red flags. They surround a patch of trees harboring a plant called Giant hogweed that, for the most part, would go completely unrecognized by the average eye. It's only when Chase, a weed control expert, walks into the area that the problem quickly becomes apparent.
"If you look right between those trees, I can see one that jumped right out at me when I just looked that way," Chase says.
Giant Hogweed is dangerous to people, acting kind of like poison ivy on steroids, as Rice Creek employee Alan Harris puts it. Chase and Harris say Hogweed contains a poisonous sap that can cause blisters, scarring and even blindness when combined with moisture and sunlight.
"Now the weird part is you won't get this on you and burn," Chase said. "You won't go home and go 'Man, what have I got on me?'"
"If you brushed into this at night, it could not bother you," Harris added. "But then you wake up the next day, if you haven't washed it off, as soon as the sun hits it. The sun's like an activator."
Blisters will form on the skin where the sap is, and burns will quickly develop. Weeks can go by before the wound is fully healed, and even then a scar could remain.
Chase and his company are one of seven teams in the state trying to eradicate the giant hogweed. The other six are DEC crews. Chase has seen anywhere from one or two Hogweed plants hiding out on someone's lawn to thousands spread across entire fields.
"The biggest site is Towgate Road and [Route] 104, out in Mexico," Chase said. "You get to like a thousand and it's just like how do you count them? A lot, there's thousands here."
Giant Hogweed's broad leaves prevent light from getting to smaller plants and trees, which results in soil erosion.
In some parts of the state the plant has seemingly run rampant, mostly in western counties near Rochester and Buffalo. A 2013 DEC report says there were nearly 1,200 active hogweed sites across the state and has increased every year since 2008. The good news is the bulk of these sites have less than 400 plants.
Hogweed has a few lookalikes that cause false alarms for prospective plant hunters. But it's the subtle differences Chase says make it easy to identify after a while.
"When I looked over there, the first thing I saw that grabbed my attention was the fuzz and the purple," Chase explained. "And I went, 'Oooh, what's that.'"
For the average homeowner, Chase says the easiest way to determine if a plant is hogweed is to take a picture, email it to the DEC, and to leave the identification to the professionals.
"Just because every time they do a little bit of a news release, all of a sudden there's a huge flood of everybody has hogweed," Chase explained. "And in many cases it's not."
But while other invasive species like the Emerald Ash Borer and the water chestnut have proven difficult to control, there's optimism that giant hogweed can be contained. It takes years for the plant to go to seed and it doesn't spread its seeds very far, so it's easier to treat. The DEC says in 2013, 150 sites were considered eradicated.