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This pretty plant is dangerous — and it’s growing in more than a dozen Mass. communities

The toxic plant giant hogweed was first spotted in Virginia last week. It still exists in 14 Massachusetts towns and cities.
Virginia Tech
The toxic plant giant hogweed was first spotted in Virginia last week. It still exists in 14 Massachusetts towns and cities.

That impressive plant with white flowers that appeared out of nowhere in your backyard might be trouble.

Giant hogweed is an invasive species that can form huge blisters and burn your skin, biologists say. It’s currently infesting 14 Massachusetts communities, and state officials are keeping an eye on its spread.

Massachusetts biologists first spotted the plant in Granville in 2002, Jennifer Forman Orth, an environmental biologist at the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, said Wednesday.

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Hogweed has recently been spotted in Acton, Blandford, Brimfield, Dover, Hinsdale, Lee, Martha’s Vineyard, New Marlborough, Peru, Southwick, Stoughton, Sutton, and West Springfield, and control efforts are still in progress, according to the state Department of Agricultural Resources.

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However, the plant has been eradicated in several other communities, including Boston.

“It’s a very large plant with a large, flowering stalk that towers over people, like an umbrella of white flowers. It’s very showy. I think that’s what made people plant it years and years ago,” Forman Orth said.

While beautiful, hogweed can be extremely dangerous. It produces phototoxic sap that, after being exposed to sunlight, forms painful, fluid-filled blisters on human skin, she said. Experts say it can also cause blindness if it gets in your eyes.

It also poses some ecological issues.

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Once hogweed — which thrives along streams and riverbanks — sprouts flowers, it begins to die, Forman Orth said. Because it’s top-heavy, it tips over and pulls up soil along riverbanks, causing soil erosion, she said.

The plant recently made headlines after Virginia researchers discovered it had landed in the state for the first time last week, officials said.

Researchers from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University acknowledged that while the plant — which was found in Clarke County on June 12 — can be toxic, they believe it was planted intentionally decades ago and hasn’t spread since, according to a statement from the university.

The plant has also invaded several other states, including New York, Pennsylvania, Maine, Oregon, and Washington, according to research from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. It first landed in the United States from Asia and Europe in the early 20th century as an ornamental garden plant, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation said.

Fortunately, Forman Orth said, the number of cases in Massachusetts is slowly decreasing.

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“People should be aware of what it looks like, and if they see it they should report it,” Forman Orth said, “but as long as they avoid contact with it, there shouldn’t be any significant issues.”

Elise Takahama can be reached at elise.takahama@globe.com.