What is Giant Hogweed? The UK Plant With Sap That Burns Through Skin

By Gary Cutlack on at

Some children have been left even angrier and more blotchy-faced than usual recently, with a small explosion of stories claiming the Giant Hogweed plant is damaging the skin of children brave enough to go outside. But is it a new thing or just a glorified stingy nettle children should simply learn to avoid?

Where Has it Come From? 

It was introduced to the UK during Victorian times, eventually escaping from gardens to run wild in the woods and heaths, so it's not some new form of deadly triffid that came in on the back of the Perseids meteor shower last year. We've just forgotten, as a nation, that some things are bad.

Is Giant Hogweed Really an Acid Plant of Death?

According to the Royal Horticultural Society, the sap from the Giant Hogweed can trigger photodermatitis or photosensitivity, causing skin to become hypersensitive to light and leading to blisters and scars. So it's not nice, but also not quite as bad as the ACID ALIEN DEATH PLANT it's been portrayed as by the media. It won't melt the blades off your dad's secateurs.

How Do I Know What It Looks Like? 

It looks like cow parsley.

But I Live in a Town And Don't Know What Cow Parsley Looks Like and Now I'm Scared to Go to The Park in Case I Melt My Bottom Off by Sitting on It

It's a tall plant that can grow up to three metres tall (exaggerated to 6m in some recent tabloid scare stories), with thick green stems with purple blotches on them and white flowers at the top.

I'm From the Internet, I Need a Photo That Looks Like a Meme in Order to Understand And Process Visual Information: 


The RHS says when hacking down Giant Hogweed gardeners or vengeful parents should "...always wear gloves, cover your arms and legs, and ideally wear a face mask" and also warns that clothing with sap on should be treated with care, so it's genuinely a bit of a risk of irritation – but unlikely to cause deaths on any sort of scale.

What Does The Government Say? 

The NHS says to wash it off, then pick your bike up and carry on.

So is Everyone Being Drama Queens About Nothing? 

Well it's not like Giant Hogweed has suddenly appeared out of nowhere. It wasn't let loose on the population to deliberately maim by a vengeful Monty Don. If parents can't say to their children "Don't touch that again or it'll make your face go blotchy" it's a pretty sorry reflection of life in the UK that shows how out of touch we are with nature.

OUCH What's That?

It's a stingy nettle.

Image credit: Giant Hogweed from Shutterstock