You should probably wear long sleeves

By Pamela Chergotis

I found out about the giant hogweed from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. If you sign up for its newsletters, you’ll get a daily dose of information about the outdoors ranging from useful to weird -- the correct use of a space blanket, perhaps, or notice of a flooded trail, or a discussion of snowy owls flying into planes, or a photo of a turkey vulture regurgitating its dinner. There are many tales of ranger derring-do, since plenty of hikers get into trouble in lonely and fearsome spots you had no idea existed in your state. It’s good reading, like the hodgepodge in the Farmer’s Almanac, but with an Empire State flair.

The giant hogweed caught my attention. A clipboard-toting a ranger stands underneath, completely dwarfed by the plant she has presumably been tasked with eradicating. She leans back to take in the enormity of its umbrella-like flower. It’s the kind of plant you think you’ve seen around, and you probably have. But it’s a scary monster, like the 15-foot python rangers once found in Harriman State Park. It grows as high as 15 feet and bleeds a noxious goo that makes everything it touches extremely photo sensitive. Getting any amount of it on yourself, in combination with sunlight, has dire consequences. If you touch it and then touch your sun-exposed eyes, you can go blind. Touch your skin, and it will dissolve into an angry, suppurating wound, like a chemical burn.

Like other invasive plants that have worn out their welcome, the giant hogweed was introduced to this country as an ornamental, and is now officially designated a Federal Noxious Weed. It even inspired a rock song, “The Return of the Giant Hogweed,” by the British band Genesis:

Turn and run!

Nothing can stop them,

Around every river and canal their power is growing.

Stamp them out!

I’m pretty sure a giant hogweed is growing near the pull-in trailhead for the newish Warner Creek Trail, which climbs up Silver Hollow Notch and over the gorgeous, balsam-covered Daley Ridge on its way to the flat summit of Plateau Mountain, at 3,840 feet one of the Catskills’ tallest peaks. It was completed some years back to replace an extensive Long Path road walk along Route 214. I reported the plant to the DEC, which seemed unimpressed. “How do you know it’s really a giant hogweed?” the bored voice said. Well, okay, then, I’ve done my duty. Tom quoted Confucius, who apparently said you can let yourself off the hook after you’ve gone as far as you can with state bureaucrats. We park at a respectful distance from the hogweed and head up the mountain.

Midway up we see more plants that look like the giant hogweed, but without the Internet I couldn’t say for sure. I’m unused to racking my brain in the age of Google. One of them has a furry node, but which one? One has red blotches on the stems – but is it the bad plant or the good one? These tall, vigorous plants have the wide umbels and deeply incised compound leaves of the giant hogweed. I warn Tom and we walk carefully around them. But we eventually encounter a mass so thick, we must push through them or else turn back. We push through. What does this say about us? We stop at several ledges overlooking the Indian Head Wilderness Area and Mink Hollow. I relish the sight with eyes I wasn’t sure would still be working at the end of the day.

To my relief, because I love this trail, and my poor eyesight too, inasmuch as it hasn’t been 20/20 since the seventh grade, the plant on the mountain is cow parsnip. Both are members of the carrot family, which accounts for their resemblance to one another. But cow parsnip, I discovered, is not completely benign, either. It can cause rashes and blisters like those other tormentors of the trail, poison ivy and stinging nettles. That’s why we cover up on hikes, Tom said -- long pants always, and hats, sunglasses, and long sleeves too most of the time. Very wise! Wasn’t it Confucius who said that, as long as you cover up, you can go the distance?

SNEAK PEEK:

Trailhead: Notch Inn Road off Route 214 in Edgewood, NY (two small pull-off parking lots)

Trails: Yellow-blazed spur trail (0.75 miles) to blue-blazed Warner Creek Trail/Long Path (3 miles) to red-blazed Devil’s Path leading to Plateau Mountain summit (0.4 miles)