Growing concerns

City denies request to remove poisonous giant hogweed

Published on July 15, 2010
St. John's resident Wanda Lewis is shown by a giant hogweed plant near her home in the Mundy Pond area of St. John's Wednesday afternoon. She and her husband, Shawn Lewis, have raised their concerns with the City of St. John's but so far have had no positive results in getting it removed. Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

The City of St. John's has refused a request to remove a highly poisonous plant from a secluded area, which residents say is popular with children.

Contact with giant hogweed sap causes blisters that turn into permanent scars, and sap contact near the eyes can lead to blindness.

The City of St. John's has refused a request to remove a highly poisonous plant from a secluded area, which residents say is popular with children.

Contact with giant hogweed sap causes blisters that turn into permanent scars, and sap contact near the eyes can lead to blindness.

The noxious sap, which is found all over the plant, is activated by sunlight.

Wanda Lewis of the Mundy Pond area of St. John's discovered the plant in a wooded area just behind her house last Saturday.

Her friend, horticultural technician Mark Bowering, mentioned the invasive species in conversation, and she showed him what was growing just outside her yard, which he confirmed to be giant hogweed.

Wanda and her husband, Shawn Lewis, contacted the City of St. John's, which owns the property, and an assessment was completed. City officials told her they wouldn't remove the plant.

"I did notify them that there are children that play out in that area, but they still said they weren't taking any action," Wanda Lewis said.

"I'm just worried about the children that are out there because I know when I was a child I would explore plants, especially if they looked different," she said.

Brian Head, operations manager for the City of St. John's public works department, said the city will only remove the plant if it's found in an area where it is going to affect the public, such as public walkway or playground.

"If it's found in an innocuous spot, say out in the woods or nowhere near a trail or something like that, then it will probably be left alone," he said.

He noted that access to the plant near the Lewises' home is limited.

Bowering, who works for Bowering Ponds and Gardens, said the plant will spread to other areas the way other invasive species have if the issue isn't addressed.

"They're going to be everywhere and it's going to be a lot easier to get rid of them now," he said.

Nearby, on the side of the road on Empire Avenue near Blackmarsh Road, there's another - a sturdy, leafy plant about five feet tall.

It's heavy with buds that resemble Spanish onions, except they're the size of large grapefruits.

If left alone, the buds will burst, releasing flowers that will leave behind about 10,000 seeds. But this plant, as well as another in Airport Heights, is on the city's chopping block tomorrow morning.

Head said the plants will be dug up with a backhoe. The holes will be covered and the remains will be brought Robin Hood Bay via dump truck. It should take about two hours and cost less than $500.

Memorial University Botanical Garden research horticulturalist Todd Boland said the plant's flat seeds can travel by water or wind, which makes the city vulnerable.

"Around here, we got winds like nobody's business," he said.

Boland has seen them all over - Airport Heights, the Virginia River, Topsail Road near Shaw Street, Windsor Heights - and there's thousands of plants in the Georgetown-Brigus area.

"It's far more widespread than we thought it was," he said.

Boland is also the Newfoundland and Labrador representative on a national working group dealing with invasive species such as the hogweed.

Many cities in Canada are tackling with the problem. The Halifax Regional Municipality is starting a public education effort, as is the Nova Scotia provincial government.

The City of St. John's doesn't have anything in the works, but is monitoring the situation and removing plants on a case-by-case basis.

"If it starts to become a real problem then we'll certainly take appropriate measures to make sure the public is not harmed," Head said.

Boland is afraid the problem won't be addressed until someone gets hurt.

"Until some youngster goes in there and gets themselves disfigured for life, then they might do something about it," Boland said.

kbreen@thetelegram.com