When I was five, my parents cautioned me about a gigantic poisonous plant that was sinisterly darkening the forest edge. “A man went to swim and sunbathe,” my mother told me, pointing to huge fanlike leaves. “He decided to use these giant leaves as bedding and died.” Falling asleep that night, I recalled this wondrous tangle of greenery and vowed that I would do everything in my power to stay away from that plant. The next morning I awoke with pussy blisters on my face, chest, and arms. I was taken to the doctor who immediately diagnosed the cause: hogweed.
This was in the mid-eighties, when the effort to introduce a Caucasian variety of this plant, known as Sosnowsky’s hogweed (Borshchevik sosnovskovo to Russians, Heracleum sosnowskyi to botanists), to the rest of the Soviet Union was thought to have been successfully completed. The plant was touted as inexpensive fodder for livestock, and programs with names like “Sosnowsky’s Hogweed – a Valuable Feed Crop” were still being aired on television.
These broadcasts would show earnest Soviet officials, walking across a sun-drenched field, umbrellaed by plants twice their size. There was no mention of how dangerous it is to be close to hogweed with exposed skin, especially when it is flowering and in sunlight, although toward the end of the broadcast the narrator’s calm baritone might mention that Sosnowsky’s hogweed contains a substance that can severely burn skin.
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