Giant hogweed has a stout, bright green stem that is frequently spotted with dark red and hollow red-spotted leaf stalks that produce sturdy bristles. The stems grow to more than 2 m high. The hollow stems vary from 3–8 cm (1.2–3.1 in) in diameter, occasionally up to 10 cm (3.9 in). Each dark red spot on the stem surrounds a hair, and large, coarse white hairs occur at the base of the leaf stalk. The plant has deeply incised compound leaves which grow up to 1–1.7 m (3 ft 3 in–5 ft 7 in) in width.
Giant hogweed is a biennial or monocarpic perennial, the plants dying after they have set seed. It usually flowers in its second year from late spring to midsummer, with numerous white flowers clustered in an umbrella-shaped head that is up to 80 cm (31 in) in diameter across its flat top. The plant produces 1,500 to 100,000 flattened, 1-centimetre (0.39 in)-long, oval, dry seeds that have a broadly rounded base and broad marginal ridges. Tall dead stems may mark its locations during winter.
The sap of the giant hogweed plant is phototoxic; when the contacted skin is exposed to sunlight or to ultraviolet rays, it can cause phytophotodermatitis (severe skin inflammations). Initially, the skin colours red and starts itching. Blisters form as it burns within 48 hours. They form black or purplish scars that can last several years. Hospitalisation may be necessary.
The presence of minute amounts of sap in the eyes can lead to temporary or even permanent blindness.
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