Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Giant Invader

It all started about four years ago. My kids were walking through the abandoned orchard next to our rural property when they discovered a very unusual plant. It looked remarkably like the dried out remains of a dandelion puffball – except it was well over 2 meters in height.

Intrigued by its one-of-a-kind towering presence, we joked about it being the remains of some ancient dinosaur’s dinner. When the plant was finally identified by a wildlife biologist as Giant Hogweed, we soon discovered that it was no laughing matter.

Giant Hogweed is native to Central Asia where can grow up to 6 meters tall. Hogweed plants have large fanlike leaves that can reach up to 1.5 meters in diameter and white flowering heads that very closely resemble Queen’s Anne Lace when in full bloom.

The plant, like so many other invasive species has no known predators. It spreads quickly because it is a perennial tuber that also produces between 1,500 to 100,000 seeds per plant. In the four years that has since transpired, that single dead flower has grown into an infestation of between 10,000 and 15,000 plants.

The real danger of Giant Hogweed is its sap, which can cause Phytophotodermatitis – a severe inflammation of tissue - when exposed to sunlight.

When our daughter Sarah unknowingly brushed up against a plant, the skin on her leg immediately broke out in large watery blisters that resembled chemical burns. While the very painful blisters receded after flushing her skin and treating her with topical and oral antihistamines, the area can remain photosensitive for up to twenty years. Even a small amount in the eyes can cause temporary or permanent blindness.

After Sarah’s unfortunate brush with the plant, my husband Brian leapt into action. Convinced of its danger, he honestly believed that once the rapidly growing threat was identified to the authorities, immediate action would be taken before it seeds had a chance to mature. That was early in May.

A corporate developer owns the vacant land where the hogweed resides, so Brian contacted our local municipality to see what could be done. After an inspection by a friendly and helpful by-law officer, the municipality’s position was that it would only take action if the province listed the plant as a noxious weed.

The Regional government took a similar stand, so Brian contacted our MPP, who was very helpful in trying to get the province’s attention. We were told that the paperwork to designate Giant Hogweed was sitting on the Environment Minister’s desk.

“Everyone is looking for someone else to manage the problem. They are hoping upon hope that they will also have the financial and human resources to deal with it,” said Brian. “But hope, is NOT a project management tool.”

Brian contacted the local conservation authority and various environmental groups, but none had the resources or the will to take on the considerable challenge of dealing with this Asian invader.

“We are more than willing to take the advantages of globalization,” said Brian, “but when it comes to dealing with the disadvantages, we want somebody else to manage it.”

Finally, after weeks of emails and phone calls, Brian received official word from Leona Dombrowsky, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, the ministry responsible for protecting agricultural land from noxious weeds. In an act that might make Pontius Pilot blush, Dombrowsky washed her hands of the problem. Her solution – have the municipality designate the weed as noxious and deal with it locally.

“I understand from Ministry staff that, while very prevalent in some municipalities, giant hogweed is not widespread throughout Ontario,” Dombrowsky wrote in a letter dated July 14th.

The problem is that it soon will be. One plant four years ago has translated into 15,000 plants that have the potential for dropping up to 1,500,000,000 seeds in a creek bed that is less than 3 km from the shoreline of Lake Ontario.

Once it reaches the lake it could quickly become a full-blown ecological disaster. Cutting the plant (in protective gear) will only makes its roots spread faster. The only way to eradicate it is to apply the pesticide Round-up for up to seven years in succession. This isn’t an option for a shoreline infestation.

The window of opportunity to literally nip this problem in the bud has passed. The flowering heads have matured and will begin to drop their seeds any day now. The experiment has performed itself.


For more information about Giant Hogweed, visit www.invadingspecies.com


Anonymous Dave Renaud said...

Hi Suzanne,
Once again government inaction has reared its ugly head.

It sure is inspirational to see that Brian is like a dog on bone, he doesn't give up until he gets his just reward. You are both great examples in community leadership.

Thank you

October 13, 2009 11:42 AM  

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