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The U.S. Department of Agriculture has put this plant near the top of its Federal Noxious Weed list. Officials in Washington are asking residents to be on the lookout for it so they can eradicate it. In New York a hotline has been set up so residents can easily report sightings, and crews in several states are seeking it out and destroying it. To date it has been reported in Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington and Vermont.

The plant is the giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum), originally from central Asia. Since its discovery it has spread all over the world, because as a specimen plant it is a knockout.  White flowers nearly 3 feet in diameter bloom on top of stalks that can reach 15 feet tall. The tropical looking compound leaves grow 3-5 feet across and up to 9 feet long on purple spotted stalks. People naturally want to touch it because it is so unusual, and that is what makes this plant is so dangerous.

The plant’s clear, watery sap works with moisture and sunlight in a reaction called phytophotodermatitis. People coming into contact with the sap develop large, painful blisters that resemble severe sunburn. Some have had to be hospitalized for intravenous antibiotics and cortisone injections and have taken a month or more to heal. Once the blisters heal, scars resembling cigarette burns remain. Children who have used the hollow stems as pea shooters have developed painful blisters around their mouths, and others who have used them as telescopes have been permanently blinded by the burning sap.

Doug Cygan, Invasive Species Coordinator with the NH State Department of Agriculture says, “It’s by far the worst plant pest when it comes to human health.” In New Hampshire, state officials have begun surveying and mapping sites where giant hogweed grows. So far it has been found in Grafton, Sullivan and Rockingham Counties, with unconfirmed reports of four injuries from the sap.

Officials warn those who think they’ve found a giant hogweed plant to stay away from it, keep pets and livestock from grazing on it, and make sure children and pets don’t play around it. There are reports of people getting burned by playing with cats and dogs who’ve gotten the sap on their fur.

NH residents who suspect they have found giant hogweed should call the Cooperative Extension’s Family, Home & Garden Education Center’s Info Line at 1-877-398-4769, Monday-Friday, 9 AM -2 PM, prepared to describe the plant and its location. All parts of the plant contain toxic sap, and it is recommended that people do not touch the plant while trying to identify it. Instead, wait for confirmation from a state inspector. For more information and photos, click here.

Resources include the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension Service, the State of New York Department of Environmental Conservation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

NOTE: I’m getting asked repeatedly where folks should report their giant hogweed sightings. It’s important that you contact the extension service or department of agriculture in your state.  To find that information simply go to Google or any other search engine and type “Reporting giant hogweed in XXXXXXXX” where XXXXXXXX is the name of your state. Once you do this you’ll find a wealth of information, including photos and how to identify this plant. More often than not I’m told, what people are seeing is cow parsnip or another look alike. Please do your homework and try your best to make an accurate identification before contacting the authorities in your state.

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One of the best ways to find inspiration for your own garden is to see what other folks have done in theirs.  This year the perfect way to do so is by joining the Cheshire Housing Trust on their annual garden tour. Funds raised by the garden tour help Cheshire Housing Trust provide affordable housing to low and middle income families in the region.

This year the tour is this Saturday, June 25, and begins at 10:00 am. The Hampshire House on 86 Winter Street in Keene, on the corner of Winter and School Streets, will be the site of a plant sale, bake sale, and a garden market featuring perennials and crafts. The market opens at 9:00 am, and tickets can be purchased there on the day of the tour.

If you would like to save on tickets, they can be found at Agway in Keene, Peterborough and Walpole; the Cheshire Housing Trust Office; Horse and Buggy Feeds; In the Company of Flowers; Earth Treasures; the UNH Cooperative Extension Service; Maple Hill Nursery in Swanzey; People’s United Bank in Keene and Chesterfield; and the Toadstool Bookshop in Keene. Tickets are $12.00 in advance or $15.00 the day of the tour.  A tour map is included with the tickets, and participants drive to each location in their own vehicle. The tour is very informal, and there is no tour leader.

Those attending the tour should pay close attention not only to plants, but pathways, fencing, paved areas, arbors, water features, stonework, decking, patios, statuary, lawn edging, and other hardscape items in the gardens. You may see these materials and other items used in ways that you’ve never thought of, so a camera and / or notebook will come in handy. There will be a housing trust greeter at each location and the home owners will be available to answer questions, so don’t be afraid to ask.

The Cheshire Housing Trust depends on this tour to raise much needed funds, so please consider attending. The tour happens rain or shine, so keep an eye the weather forecast. For more information, call 603-357-7603. To see photos of last year’s tour, click here.

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The sensational headline traveled around the world faster than green grass through a goose: 

Overdose of Growth Hormone Causes Exploding Watermelons in China! 

According to the BBC, the Associated Press and others, the obvious explanation for these bursting watermelons was an overdose of the growth accelerator Forchlorfenuron. An EPA bulletin says this chemical was released in 2004 for use on grapes and Kiwi fruit in this country. It is apparently so effective that its recommended rate of application is 2-8 grams per acre for Kiwis. 

Farmer Liu Mingsuo didn’t get the EPA bulletin however, and soaked his melons with the stuff. Before long they were going off “like land mines,” and 8 acres were ruined. About 20 farmers and 115 acres of melons were affected overall, but most hadn’t even used the chemical. 

Though melons in Shanghai markets show signs of the overuse of Forchlorfenuron, (“fibrous, misshapen fruits with mostly white, instead of black seeds”) it is doubtful that chemicals caused the melons to explode.  Growth hormones have been used on apples, citrus, tomatoes, and other fruits and vegetables since the 1930s with no known explosions. 

Horticultural professor Wang Liangju explained that the farmers were using a thin skinned variety of melons that are actually nicknamed “exploding melons,” because of their tendency to split open. In addition, he said the melons began “exploding” after a heavy rainfall. 

This is more common than one might think. After dry weather a heavy downpour can cause many fleshy fruits and vegetables to split open due to a rapid intake of moisture. Anyone who has picked a split tomato, radish or pepper has witnessed this. Nurserymen use this rapid moisture intake to their advantage by letting plants dry out slightly before giving them a weak solution of water soluble fertilizer. 

Uneven watering isn’t the only reason watermelons might explode; a librarian from Texas writes that when she cut into a watermelon 2 days after buying it, “It exploded! Seeds and pieces of that melon went in all directions, including on the white blouse I was wearing!” Many others have had this same experience after leaving watermelons in a warm place for awhile. 

According to the Alabama Extension System, Bacterial fruit blotch has caused watermelon explosions in one or more states on the eastern seaboard and in Alabama every year since 1989. This disease can cause melons to literally ferment inside their skins. “Effervescent exudates” (a fancy term for seeping, bubbling liquids) are often seen on the rind of affected fruit, and like an over-filled balloon they sometimes pop, especially when heated by the sun.

Finding a split watermelon or two doesn’t mean someone snuck into your garden and sprayed growth hormones, because it’s a very common occurrence. The Chinese horticulturalist’s explanation that a lot of rain and thin skinned fruit caused it on such a grand scale in China certainly seems the most plausible one.

Though inaccurate, maybe the headlines will get people thinking about what they are doing to their food and themselves when they use these chemicals. You have to wonder how much hope there is for China though; in March of last year authorities seized and destroyed 3.5 tons of 3 foot long beans (?) that had been treated with the banned pesticide isocarbophos.

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