July 7, 2011 — -- It's Queen Anne's lace on steroids and it could be coming to a backyard, park or playground near you.
Heracleum Mantegazzianum -- a plant more commonly known as the giant hogweed and native to Central Asia -- is spreading fast in several states, and experts are urging some residents to beware. The tall plant with large, attractive flowers the size of umbrellas contains sap that causes blisters, burns, even blindness.
The growing concern over the plant's dangerous toxicity has put health officials in several states on a hogweed hunt.
In Washington, D.C., officials are so concerned about the spread of the invasive species that they've begun asking residents for help in locating outbreaks so city officials can send work crews out to nip it in the bud.
Vermont's state office of plant pathologist has already found and destroyed hogweed in Washington, Windsor and Bennington counties.
In New York State, the Department of Environmental Conservation said sightings of the vicious plant have soared this season. It has now set up a giant hogweed hotline and ordered a special 14-man crew to root out the plant along roads and streams.
In the U.S., the giant hogweed is typically found in New England states and parts of the Northeast. The plant has also been seen in small patches in the Pacific Northwest. It grows up to 15 feet high, with a purple-tinged stem and sprays of white blossoms a foot or more across.
Triggered by light, a toxin in hogweed sap attacks human skin, causing swelling, burns, blisters and permanent, purplish scars. Experts believe many Americans afflicted by hogweed don't even realize it.
Like hogs, hogweed favors cool, wet places and is found near garbage dumps, homes, ravines, railroads, roadways and streams.
Destroying the plants usually entails using large doses of herbicides.
Some states have had reports of kids being burned or blinded after using the plant's large, hollow stalks as blow guns or telescopes.
"It's a little scary to know it can pop up in a park or even your backyard," said Janice Leyland of Albany, N.Y.
The mother of three children said the state's new warnings have made her a little uneasy about where her kids will play.
"I'm always careful about what they touch or grab on the playground and in the parks, but now I'll likely be a little nervous when they come into contact with plants I don't really recognize," she said.
Experts say children should be kept away from giant hogweed and that homeowners should not try to remove the plant themselves. They should instead contact their state or local invasive species departments for more information on how to deal with the plant.
In addition to Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, the plant has been found in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Maryland, Ohio, Washington and Oregon, according the USDA, which includes the giant hogweed on or near the top of its 150-item Federal Noxious Weeds list.
"We consider it a major target," Alan Tasker, program manager of the list, said on the USDA's website.