These Plants Look Exactly Like the Toxic Giant Hogweed — and They’re Poisonous, Too
Who knew a plant in the carrot family could cause so much damage? Snopes explains many first heard of the giant hogweed plant after Toronto’s National Post reported in 2010 that it was found growing in Ontario. Giant hogweed, which is native to Asia, was starting to invade North America — and now it’s found in many areas across the U.S.
The plant looks relatively unassuming at first glance. CBS News reports it can grow to be up to 14 feet tall and typically has large clusters of white flowers at the top. You can’t touch it, however, as the toxic chemicals within the sap can cause human skin to burn and blister. If you come into contact with giant hogweed, it’s common to develop dark and painful blisters within 48 hours of touching the plant — and the scarring can last years. If the toxic sap gets into your eyes, it can cause blindness, too.
If you live in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Oregon, Washington, Michigan, Virginia, Vermont, New Hampshire, or Maine, it’s possible you’ve seen this plant growing. But it’s possible you’ve also seen a hogweed lookalike, too. The following plants look a lot like giant hogweed — and unfortunately, they can also harm you.
1. Cow parsnip
It doesn’t sound as menacing as hogweed, but it can still burn your skin. The official website for Nova Scotia reports cow parsnip has similar white flowers at the top, but the stalks and stems have softer hairs than hogweed. Additionally, cow parsnip’s leaves are broader and look less serrated, the leaves aren’t shiny, and the flowers are only a quarter of the size of the white flowers on hogweed.
Both giant hogweed and cow parsnip are poisonous though, so beware. Touching this plant can result in the same burning and blistering of the skin.
This lookalike won’t burn you, but it is highly poisonous if you ingest it. The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences reports this plant is actually native to the eastern half of the U.S., so you may have come across it. As far as looks go, it’s large, bushy, and can grow up to 10 feet tall. It also typically has smooth red-purple stems, large leaves, and clusters of dark purple berries during the autumn months. Across the upper branches, it’s also common to see white flowers at the ends of stems — which is part of the reason why pokeweed is often confused with giant hogweed.
You’re well-advised not to eat any part of this plant, even the berries. The root is the most toxic part of the plant, but leaves, stems, and berries can also make you ill. There have been reports in the past of infants ingesting the berries and dying from the poison.
3. Wild parsnip
This one’s quite similar to cow parsnip, but it’s not the same. CBS News explains wild parsnip, which is part of the carrot family, was originally from Europe but has been found in parts of the U.S., too. It can grow over 14 feet long, which is very similar to giant hogweed. It also has a broad stretch of white and yellow-petaled flowers across the top that bloom from June until the end of summer.
You’ll want to keep your skin away from wild parsnip, too. This plant releases a toxic oil when its leaves are brushed, resulting in an itchy, bumpy, and blistering rash. Discoloration of the skin can then last for several months.
There are many types of elderberries — and depending on which one you encounter, parts of the plant can make you very sick. As for what the plant looks like, aside from the berries, the top of the plant contains many small white flowers that spread flat across it. Giant hogweed and elderberry are even similar in height.
The good news is that elderberry plants do not secrete a sap that can burn you. The bad news is that the berries look totally harmless, but in many cases, they aren’t. SF Gate notes the stems, unripe fruit, and leaves of the common black elderberry are all toxic to humans, and if you have sensitive skin, you may develop a rash from touching these parts. And “Sutherland Gold” elderberry — which is known for its gold hue — can cause digestive distress in anyone who ingests any part of the plant.
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