Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Enter the Hogweed

 I am indebted to my friend Susan in New York for alerting me to a piece in the New York Times – headlined 'A Toxic Alien is Taking Over Russia' – that contains the glorious sentence 'Enter the hogweed'. This conjures up startling images of the giant hogweed yomping over the steppe in the manner of John Wyndham's mobile, carnivorous Triffids. And indeed, when the giant hogweed started getting noticed in England around 1970, it was likened to a Triffid in many a newspaper headline. 
  'It had been growing in Britain for more than 150 years,' writes Richard Mabey in Flora Britannica, 'an awesome but apparently well-mannered curiosity of Victorian shrubberies and ornamental lakesides, with no more than a hint of troll-like mischief in its huge, looming umbels ... Then, in 1970, it broke cover.'
   I first noticed it, probably in that year, growing by the water along the Cambridge 'backs', and an impressive sight it was. The thing grows to 12ft and more, with a thick, speckled stem and cartwheel-sized flowerheads. It is not a pretty sight, though undeniably sculptural, and it is not only invasive but toxic, direct contact with the plant causing an unpleasant rash.
   Our giant hogweed, Heracleum mantegazzianum, is a different species from the Russian menace (Heracleum sosnowskyi), but they are close relatives, and all giant hogweeds are good for a little public panic from time to time, and the odd newspaper headline. 
  One of Mabey's Flora Britannica contributors writes of giant hogweed growing along the river Kent in Cumbria. 'Occasionally it escapes onto the roadside verge and causes a frisson of anxiety in the local newspapers, which describe the dangers of handling it ... When gas pipes were being laid across the A6 nearby, a warning notice, 'Danger, Heavy Plant Crossing', was displayed at the foot of one of these escapees.'


  1. Full fascinating history of the, er Genesis and history, of the Giant Hogweed here Nige. Lyrics below.


    The Return of the Giant Hogweed

    Turn and run
    Nothing can stop them
    Around every river and canal their power is growing
    Stamp them out
    We must destroy them
    They infiltrate each city with their thick dark warning odor
    They are invincible
    They seem immune to all our herbicidal battering
    Long ago in the Russian hills
    A Victorian explorer found the regal Hogweed by a marsh
    He captured it and brought it home
    Botanical creature stirs, seeking revenge
    Royal beast did not forget
    He came home to London
    And made a present of the Hogweed
    To the Royal Gardens at Kew
    Waste no time
    They are approaching
    Hurry now, we must protect ourselves and find some shelter
    Strike by night
    They are defenseless
    They all need the sun to photosensitize their venom
    Still they're invincible
    Still they're immune to all our herbicidal battering
    Fashionable country gentlemen
    Had some cultivated wild gardens
    In which they innocently planted the Giant Hogweed throughout the land
    Botanical creature stirs, seeking revenge
    Royal beast did not forget
    Soon they escaped, spreading their seed
    Preparing for an onslaught
    Threatening the human race
    Mighty Hogweed is avenged
    Human bodies soon will know our anger
    Kill them with your Hogweed hairs
    Heracleum Mantegazziani
    Giant Hogweed lives!

  2. Thanks for that Guy – and all hail the genius of Genesis (hem hem). 'Heracleum Mantegazziani' is quite a line though... Re Genesis (or at least Peter Gabriel) see also