Donna Tavano: Not So Jolly Green Giant

We humans, for the most part, love our plants. We mist, feed, and espalier them, trim their leaves and even play music to sooth their little green souls. Not only are we omnivores and dependent on them for survival, but they are aesthetically lovely and generally fun to be around. They even clean toxins from the air in our homes. 

But just as humanity is comprised of the good, the bad and the ugly, so goes the botanical world. Recently, a bad, bad hombre has reared its gigantic self among us. Nova Scotia, New England, the Middle Atlantic States, Pacific Northwest and the Midwest have issued alerts on all media to beware the giant hogweed whose sap can cause severe eye and skin irritation, painful blisters, scarring and blindness. Poison ivy doesn’t hold a candle to this villain. Fourteen feet high, with five-foot leaves and flower clusters two and a half feet wide, it’s Queen Anne’s lace on steroids. It is ornamentally impressive which is how it got here in the first place in the early 1900s, imported by wealthy gardeners like Alexander Graham Bell on his Cape Breton Nova Scotia estate. Unfortunately it closely resembles more common plants like angelica and cow parsnip found in both the US and Canada.

Its scientific name Heracleum mantegazzianum ominously trips off the tongue like a Harry Potter incantation. A member of the carrot family, one plant produces 20,000 seeds which fall 30 feet away and are carried by wind and water, not to mention a quick pickup truck ride from western Mass. (where they’ve appeared ) to Cape Cod. A New York State conservation website leads with the screaming uppercase DO NOT TOUCH THIS PLANT, weed whack or mow! (See computer sites or county extension office for removal, which reference an after sunset event, maybe a silver dagger to the heart and definitely a hazmat suit, similar to asbestos, lead and biochemical removal, performed by experts.)

But in the good-plants-gone-bad category, our yards, fields and forests are beset by invasive species which were imported by goofy, do-gooder humans who did not anticipate potential repercussions. Beautiful wisteria woos with its python-like embrace, squeezing plants and trees to death and collapsing arbors. Trumpet vine is adored by butterflies but springs forth like myriad snakes from a medusa head when cut or dug. Purple loosestrife, once used to cure dysentery, chokes out roadside native species and takes over marshlands. Kudzu, another escapee from “Little Shop of Horrors,” synonymous with sweet tea and all things southern, was grown by the government in the 1930s to control erosion in the dust bowl prairies. Farmers were enticed to grow it by bribes of $8 per acre. Years later, it had engulfed signs, shacks and telephone poles throughout the south. And who could forget our old friend bamboo. Drive the Lower Cape and you’ll see unruly stands in most every town, the creeping creature gobbling up yards and hijacking entire neighborhoods year by year. I wondered why it is a feng shui essential for good luck, then I learned that the supermarket Good Luck bamboo plant is not really bamboo at all, but a member of the lily family…phew!

Considering the danger of giant hogweed, or choking habits of many of the invasive species which eliminate native plants, bittersweet and crabgrass suddenly don’t seem so bad. There are plenty of other toxic bad boys populating our backyards: milkweed, the go-to plant for monarch butterflies, is toxic and makes the monarch bitter and poisonous to other animals. Two berries from deadly nightshade-belladonna will kill a child, 10 to 20 an adult, and a leaf could be fatal to humans, yet cattle, horses, goats, sheep and rabbits munch on it happily. But those plants, and many others, are the foundation for modern pharmaceuticals. Is it any wonder that, back in the day, women herbalists were touted as witches? They knew which could slay, and which could give us another day. That power was too threatening for many.

Love them or fear them, we need our plants and we’d best be maintaining a healthy respect for them. Listen to the old words of wisdom, “Leaves of three, let them be,” “Hairy vine, no friend of mine,” “Berries white, run in fright,” “Side leaf mittens, will itch like the dickens.” And now, I fear our new mantra may be “Hogsweed – higher than head, stay away – better off dead!” If you do spot one of these not so jolly green giants roadside, or in your off-road travels, depart quickly and notify your town, county or state environmental/agricultural offices. Go green!