New reference guide of poisonous plants released

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ROCKINGHAM CO., Va. (WHSV) — A new reference guide includes pictures and descriptions of dangerous plants found in Virginia's outdoors.

The Socrates Project — called a first-of-its-kind endeavor — is a collaborative effort between the Virginia Master Naturalist Program and Virginia Cooperative Extension.

It's named such because Socrates, the legendary philosopher, died by ingesting hemlock.

The guide, available online, includes such poisonous plants as the giant hogweed, horse-nettle and Virginia Creeper.

Doug Horn, a Crops and Soils agent at the Rockingham County office of Virginia Cooperative Extension, said the guide can serve as a resource for parents.

"They can provide an educational foundation for what plants to avoid and it's always good to teach a child not to interact with plants that they do not understand what they are," he said.

The recent appearance of giant hogweed in Clarke County — a plant that can produce severe burns and blisters — sparked local interest.

Just last week, a teen landscaper suffered serious burns to his fan when he came in contact with the plant, which produces a sap that can cause burns and even blindness.

Reported sightings of giant hogweed have increased since its name was publicized, but Virginia Tech's Massey Herbarium reports most sightings have been unfounded. There are several other plants which look similar, like cow parsnip and elderberry.

“There’s not cause for widespread worry. It’s growing where it’s been planted from what we’ve seen. We see little evidence of it widely spreading,” said Virginia Tech’s Michael Flessner, an assistant professor and extension weed science specialist who has worked closely with Jordan Metzgar, curator of the Massey Herbarium at Virginia Tech, to identify that the plants are indeed Giant Hogweed.

It can grow up to 15 feet tall with leaves as large as five feet across but most plants identified in Virginia have been 5 to 10 feet tall, with largest leaves approximately 2 feet across. The white flower cluster contains 50 – 150 flower rays spreading up to two feet across. Giant hogweed also has purple splotches and coarse, sparse white hairs on the stem. The leaf is more incised and angular than cow parsnip, which giant hogweed's closest look alike.

Anyone who suspects they have found Giant Hogweed should take photos, check online to compare the plant to photos, and then contact a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent or file an online report here.

A second edition of the guide is currently in the works, according to a Virginia Cooperative Extension release.