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Can Hogweed Burn Your Skin?

Common Hogweed Burns

I always find it really interesting to see people’s reactions during a foraging course, as we pull up next to a fabulous patch of young succulent Common Hogweed Shoots and I go on to tell everyone that they are one of my favourite wild edible plants.

Shock Horror.

The first thing we must cover is, of course, is the potential these plants have of burning your skin. Questions like ‘are they safe?’ or ‘do you need to wear gloves when picking?’ come up first – so let’s have a little look in to this plant.

There’s two main types of Hogweed:

  1. Common Hogweed – Heracleum sphondylium
  2. Giant Hogweed – Heracleum mantegazzianum

I’d like to start by saying I’ve personally picked Common Hogweed for over 8 years without wearing gloves and have never had any ill effects from doing so.

However both plants are phototoxic, they contain amounts of furocoumarins which alter then melanin present in your skin and actually stop your skin from having the ability to protect itself from UV rays given off by certain lights and the sun.

Common hogweed contains very small amounts of this within its sap, even less in the sap of the immature shoots and I’ve never had an issue with the sap of common hogweed. Saying that, I always advise people with sensitive skin to wear a pair of gloves (standard gardening gloves will work) when picking common hogweed, especially if it’s a very sunny day.

Giant hogweed on the other hand contains fairly high levels of this chemical and can dispense the chemical without the need to break the stem and extract the sap – simply brushing up against the hairs or needles of the stalk of this plant is enough to get the juice on you. It is therefore strongly advised to stay well clear of giant hogweed. The main issue arises with this plant when somebody has decided to do some strimming on a hot day. Of course the top comes off (suns out, guns out comes to mind) and strimming commences, in the process of strimming, juice is sprayed all over the individuals body and that skin is exposed to UV from sun light for a period of time whilst strimming continues. These later burn and blister (the Daily  Sun magazine gets a lovely picture and shocking story). The effects of this type of chemical phototoxin can have effects on your skins melanin for 7 years, meaning that the effected area has to be covered up for a further 7 years before being exposed to sunlight safely – otherwise burning will occur again as your skin has little to no protection from UV light.

At this point I’d also like to add that although I don’t advise it, I’ve happily eaten Giant hogweed shoots, boiled in two changes of water and it was as tasty as common hogweed shoots.

To answer the original question there is potential that the juice of common hogweed could leave to burning of the skin and – Yes Giant hogweed can definitely lead to the burning of your skin. To keep yourself safe check out the identification of both plants by following the link below.

For more information on how to identify Common Hogweed Click here.

For more information on how to identify Giant Hogweed Click here.