The Universal Notebook: Invasion of the giant hogweed

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Man, oh man, what are we going to do about the invasion of the giant hogweed?

Standing 14 feet tall, the giant hogweed is the latest terrorist threat Mother Nature has thrown our way. Its clear sap can cause third-degree burns when it comes in contact with skin and blindness if it gets in your eyes. But its only harmful in sunlight. Stephen King couldn’t make up something like this. It’s weeds gone wild.

Native to the Caucasus region and Central Asia, giant hogweed was a favorite of Victorian gardeners in Europe and America. Its imposing height, broad leaves, and floral umbrellas made it an ornamental superstar, “Queen Anne’s lace on steroid” as one horticulturist put it.

In recent years, giant hogweed (so-called because pigs can apparently eat it with impunity) has raced across New York and New England. It’s been found in 20 places in Maine already. Locally, its been spotted in Sebago, Windham, and West Falmouth, so keep your eyes open (or closed, as the case may be), because it’s heading our way.

“Here, piggy-piggy! Come eat this invasive species.”

“Invasive species” has long struck me as a curious social construct, one that assumes some elements of nature do not belong in nature. More to the point, the designation “invasive species” assumes that human beings can control nature, are not themselves parts of nature and, in any event, should not be moving plants and animals around where they don’t belong.

It’s that “where they don’t belong” idea that fascinates me. Just as a weed is any plant growing where humans don’t want it, an invasive species is any living thing that exists where we don’t want it. (As a personal aside, I have been trying to get Bay Staters on Moody Beach and Republicans in Augusts listed as invasive species for several years now without success.)

By now we are all familiar with that most feared of invasive aquatic plants, variable leaf milfoil, the lake-choking invader that now requires all boats entering Maine fresh waters to be inspected. Less well-known among the underwater invaders are fanwort, hydrilla, frogbit, pond weed and water chestnut. And we’ve actually gotten used to the purple loosestrife that has invaded every ditch along the interstate. Kinda pretty this time of year.

Lately, I have begun to see signs warning of Maine’s ban on all out-of-state firewood, a suspected infiltration route for the Asian longhorn beetle and emerald ash borer. (The fact that the emerald ash borer and I share the same initials – EAB – is purely coincidental.) Any day now, I expect Maine’s tea party libertarian/constitutionalists to attack the firewood ban as an infringement on individual liberty and an unconstitutional taking.

Remember the good old days when we only had to worry about gypsy moths deforesting millions of acres? Now we’ve got to be on the alert for European fire ants, green crabs, common periwinkles, Rapa whelks, northern pike, giant hogweed, and giant African land snails. Believe it or not, the Maine Department of Agriculture lists the giant African land snail (aka GALS) as a pest. I guess a snail the size of a football would be, wouldn’t it?

Which reminds me, you should see the size of some of the slugs in our backyard. Carolyn put me in charge of slug patrol while she is in Japan for two weeks. It’s a losing battle. And I sure hope the Japanese beetles don’t get here before she does.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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