Parts of the east metro are being put on alert about an attractive but toxic-to-the-touch weed that blooms in the summer.

State agriculture officials are warning Washington County residents to keep an eye out for the Grecian foxglove. All parts of the weed are toxic to humans, livestock and wildlife, according to the Minnesota Agriculture Department.

Not only is the weed dangerous -- and potentially deadly -- when ingested, said state invasive species specialist Monica Chandler, but its toxins can also be absorbed on contact with the skin.

Most infestations are in eastern Washington County and occur in open areas such as roadsides, residential yards, grasslands, river bluffs and forest borders. The weed also has been detected in Dakota and Wabasha counties.

The weed "has been here for decades," Chandler said, "but it's just spreading faster now than ever before."

Grecian foxglove is a perennial that develops a rosette during the first summer. In subsequent years, it produces a stalk 2 to 5 feet tall with tubular white flowers speckled with brownish-purple markings inside. Seeds develop in pods that have small hooks, enabling the pods to be transported by animal fur or clothing.

"Summer is the perfect time to identify Grecian foxglove because it is flowering," said Geir Friisoe, the Agriculture Department's plant protection division director. "Identify infestations now and make a multiyear plan to control them in the spring and fall. Be sure to eliminate infestations that children are likely to be in contact with as quickly as possible."

Grecian foxglove is a prohibited noxious weed on the state's eradicate list. That means property owners are legally required to destroy all of the above- and below-ground parts of the plant. Use of protective gloves when handling the weed is crucial.

The best way to control populations, state officials say, is to apply herbicide to the spring and fall rosettes.

"It is very attractive" and is sold as an ornamental outside of Minnesota, she said. It is especially common in the Mediterranean.

Small doses of the weed's toxins can cause a racing heartbeat. More extensive exposure can be fatal, though Chandler knew of no deaths in Minnesota.

Chandler is particularly concerned about children because "they can eat things they are not supposed to."

Not everything about the Grecian foxglove is bad: Compounds derived from this species provide cardiac medicines.

For more information about the Grecian foxglove, visit www.mda.

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482