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Hogweed Infestation Grows on Albion Road in Windham

July 16, 2012 - Windham – What started out as one or two giant hogweed plants a few years ago has quickly grown into a minor infestation near the corner of Albion Road and Route 302 in Windham.

The plant, which can grow to 14 feet and has been described as “Queen Anne’s lace on steroids,” is harmless to touch, but its sap is known to cause blindness and skin rashes. Due to the danger, the state Department of Agriculture issued a press advisory last year about the plant’s presence on Albion Road.

However, with a lack of funding for plant eradication, the state said it would not address the hogweed infestation, and officials say the plant does not pose an immediate threat anyway.

But residents and a hogweed eradication advocate say it can cause problems, and wish the state could do more.

Sometime in the last year, the plant that led to the publicity was removed by someone, though not the state. However, as is usually the case for the hogweed, which features a massive flower head with hundreds of seeds, more of the noxious plants are growing in a ditch on the other side of the roadway, much to the alarm of nearby residents.

“I’ve lived here for about 10 years,” said Brad Whitten, who owns a home next to the infestation. “I noticed these plants within the last three years. They were small and now they’ve gotten bigger, like monstrous. They’re nice-looking flowers, but they’re dangerous.”

Whitten, who worries that his 6-year-old son may play with the large seed heads and hollow stalks, is surprised the state hasn’t done more to battle the infestation.

According to state horticulturalist Ann Gibbs, there is no money in the budget for removing invasive plants. Several years ago, she said, all federal money for invasive plant eradication efforts was cut. (The eradication of Maine’s most well-known invasive plant, milfoil, is a separate program under the state Department of Environmental Protection, and funding comes from stickers purchased by boaters.)

The state, which does offer aid to landowners for identification via its website and onsite inspection, is putting its limited financial resources toward invasive insects such as the hemlock wooly adelgid, emerald ash borer and Asian long-horned beetle, which Gibbs said can destroy forests.

“There’s no funding for going out and controlling giant hogweed,” Gibbs said. “Giant hogweed is listed as a federal noxious weed and that’s why there was funding in the past. But there was never a lot of money. We’ve never had a full-blown control program in Maine for hogweed.

“We got some money a few years ago to put together a survey [detailing] where giant hogweed was and then we put together some outreach materials, but we’ve never had a control program.”

So it’s left to landowners and invasive plant activists to fight against the noxious plant.

One such activist, Ronald Lemin of Bangor, a professional forester who holds seminars for the Nature Conservancy and Maine Forest Service on how to remove hogweed infestations, drove from his home in Bangor Tuesday when he was told by a reporter about the Albion Road infestation.

Lemin, who said it’s best to address hogweed when it hasn’t had a chance to spread, donned gloves, a long-sleeve shirt, pants and protective eyeware to cut off the flowerheads of the hogweed. He also took photographs of the infestation and sprayed herbicide on the leaves. Lemin said he would come back next year to reassess the infestation.

“It’s a small spot of giant hogweed and it’s just spotty, not dense,” Lemin said. “To me it’s an example of early detection, rapid response, where with just a little bit of spot spray of herbicide you can take care of this and maybe next year come back and hit it again and then eradicate it from the area.”

Lemin has worked for the federal Department of Agriculture on other infestations of giant hogweed in Maine, most notably a large infestation along the Kenduskeag Stream near Bangor. In some of the spots, he was able to completely eradicate the plant using the same method he used Tuesday in Windham.

“If they’re small patches, they can be eradicated,” Lemin said.
Other patches, including the 46-acre infestation along the Kenduskeag Stream, are proving insurmountable, he said.

“The seed head produces a couple hundred seeds a year, so it can rapidly spread,” Lemin said. “To me, [the Albion Road infestation] looks like it’s been here a couple years at the most, maybe three or four.”

Lemin said the giant hogweed produces foot-tall seedlings in its first year, waist-high plants featuring broad prickly leaves its second year, and chest-high plants with lacy white flowers and seed heads its third year. As it grows, it can reach heights of 12-14 feet. The largest plant at Albion Road approaches 8 feet tall.
Lemin and Gibbs said homeowners should consult experts before trying to address giant hogweed. Lemin said herbicide such as Round-Up can do the trick, but it may destroy other plants and grasses in the area. The resulting bare patch of ground would likely be fertile ground for another hogweed to take root, he said. Lemin used triclopyr, an active ingredient found in herbicides, directly on the leaves. It doesn’t affect grasses but attacks broad-leafed plants only.

Gibbs, while wanting to keep Mainers aware of the hogweed threat, doesn’t want to alarm residents as to its danger. She said the sap can be dangerous but that its spread is limited and doesn’t warrant the state’s investment of time and money beyond identification aid.

“It’s the way it is with a lot of our programs. We don’t have any money to do any of this anymore, so we have to prioritize where we put our resources,” she said. “Hogweed is a large charismatic plant but it’s not all over the place. There are a lot of plants people need to be a little bit cautious about, so I think it’s one of those things where we need to let people know about it and then they need to make their decisions and be conscious about it.”

Even if the state had the money, Gibbs probably wouldn’t spend it on eradication efforts, she said.

“I don’t think giant hogweed would be a big component of our program even if we had money,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a serious issue. I think it’s just something folks need to be aware of. People should be careful working around it, and we help provide identification for it, but I don’t think it’s going to be a huge problem.”
But Lemin, who identified a handful of other invasive species growing in the same area of Albion Road, takes giant hogweed seriously and is trying to limit its growth in Maine.

“This is the only [invasive plant] we have that is a human health safety factor,” he said. “If someone were to go into there who doesn’t know what hogweed is and start cutting it down with the sap splashing on their legs and arms, they’re going to have some pretty bad welts for a long time.

“And if it gets in your eyes, it’s really bad. It could cause blindness. There was one case where a child cut off the hollow stem and put it up to his eye and used it as a telescope and it actually caused him to go blind.”

John Balentine, Lake Region Weekly, July 2012


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