The Day of the Giant Hogweed!

John Harrison

If you spend any time in the Russian countryside the chances are that you will have seen some giant plants that can reach heights of 3 meters, or even 4 meters high. They cluster along the sides of the roads, alongside rivers, on damp ground, or around the edge of forests. They can form almost impenetrable barriers, in fact they can be such a hindrance to the movement of animals that there was a time, not so long ago, when they were used on collective farms as hedges. 

These plants, officially declared weeds only four years ago, are not exactly beautiful to look at, but they don’t look dangerous, but then it is quite difficult to know when a plant is dangerous or not. In fact, they contain a toxic sap which can get into the skin very easily if you touch the stems. I repeat, if even a tiny part of your skin touches a stem of one of these weeds, you can be seriously burnt. The sap, when which has a smell of swine, is exposed to sunlight. A fluid is created which basically eats through flesh. Cases of Triffid-like blindness have been reported, when the sap enters the eyes. Unsuspecting children fetching that ball can be severely injured.

So kill them, burn them, poison them! That is what the Moscow Oblast (Moscow region) Authorities, indeed many Russian local authorities have been doing, since they declared that they are faced with an uncontrolled invasion of extremely aggressive weeds, which can lead to landscape transformation. By 2016, these weeds had already claimed the equivalent of 32,000 hectares of land in the Moscow region alone according to official statistics. But no chemical agent has yet been discovered that can finally eradicate these plants. Each plant can produce 10,000 to 20,000 seeds. Specially cultivated, the plants can produce as many as 100,000 seeds, and those seeds can float for kilometres merrily on summer breezes, and remain potent for up to four years. The plant, although it has a life of only two years, is incredibly hardy. It laughs at the deep freeze of Russian winters, and does not wilt during summer heatwaves and droughts. 

One of my English students told me how he battled with the plants at his dacha, and his experiences served as inspiration to write this article. “I am a doctor and have some understanding of chemistry. I first thought that I could eradicate the plants using chemicals, after all, people have been researching this plant for a long time. I contacted my friends who work in a special institute in Moscow, and they arrived in a large van full of equipment. To my amazement, they used a specially adapted drone to spray the plants, as they didn’t want to get anywhere near them themselves. The plants were killed that year, but they came back again the next. There seemed no way to stop them taking over my land. Then I decided to buy myself a full biological warfare suit, complete with oxygen tank and go at them. I hacked them all down and then planted special, fast growing grass in their place. Now, as long as I eradicate new shoots every two weeks, I think I have solved the problem. But if I go away at any time from about the 1st of March onwards for longer, these things sprout through the grass, and grow incredibly quickly. The secret, I think is to stop them flowering in June and keep cutting them back for three years, to stop the reproduction cycle.”

These plants, nicknamed ‘Borshevik’ in Russian, and named Giant Hogweed in English are not native to the western areas of Russia. It is important not to confuse Borshevik with the relatively harmless Cow Parsnip, which is native to North America[1], and was even used by native Americans who ate the inside of the stem and boiled the roots to extract sugar. Cow Parsnip is eaten by deer, elk, moose and livestock. It is also planted and harvested as forage. 

Borshevik originated in the Caucasus area, where it was discovered by its namesake Russian botanist D.I. Sosnowski in Georgia, in 1936. To understand how such a poisonous plant should enjoy such popularity amongst Soviet farmers, means understanding the relationship between science and politics in the USSR, and the historical context within which this all took place. 

Praise to Soviet Science. 1950s.

Science played an integral part in the formation of Soviet policies. But it wasn’t always the kind of relationship whereby scientists give advice and government officials reluctantly (sometimes) follow that advice. On many occasions, scientists followed top-down, determinist policies whereby they were told to find ways to fulfil plans and quotas. Under Stalin, agrobiologists were given the task of increasing planted areas and yields, as well as introducing new crops. Sure, Stalin allowed scientists to advise him, as long as the advice went along with policies. 

As early as 1938, a special ‘fodder’ group was created on Kola base of AS USSR, and of particular interest to scientists were the Heraculeum PubescensHeracleum Sosnowski and Heracukem Dissectum plants, which are all fairly closely related to one another[2]Heraculeum Pubescens was deemed to be the most promising for silage purposes, but somewhere along the line it was replaced by Heracleum Sosnowski, or what is now nicknamed Borshevik[3]. All of the species of Heraculeumstudied in AS USSR were known to contain furanocoumarins, which are the chemical compounds that sensitizes human skin to sunlight.

After contact with Boroshovik

Official documents deny that Borshevik contained any harmful alkaloid substances. Soviet biologist A.A. Marchenko noted that they are eaten ‘with pleasure and increase milk yield being surely harmless to animals[4]’. When confronted with evidence that the seeds had been mixed, Marchenko said that he had observed that Heracleum Sosnowski can cause burns, but concluded that this was only because of local variables, and that the harmful effect would disappear when the plants are introduced in northern climatic zones.[5]

It is, of course, easy to criticise those difficult days from the perspective of what we know now . According to the Russian military website ‘Военное Обозрение[6]’About 40% of the USSR’s meat and dairy products were produced in areas occupied and later ravaged by Hitler’s armies. This already dire situation was aggregated further by the drought of 1946-1947. Moscow refused foreign loans and imports of agricultural products, although in 1945-1953, the USSR provided free food assistance to East Germany, Austria, China, Mongolia, N. Korea and Vietnam. 

Farmers looked positively on any way to increase production of dairy and meat products. In the 1950s, Borshevik was introduced into 17 collective and state farms of Leningrad region in 1955. From 1959 a program of obligatory introduction of the plant was instigated throughout the Komi region. 

Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev ( secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964).

Under Khrushchev’s ambitious drive to catch up with and overtake the USA, distribution of Borshevikseeds by post increased, and the plant was cultivated from Pskov region to Sakhalin. This was the era of Khrushchev’s ‘Virgin lands’ campaign (1954-1961). Thousands of young specialists were sent to conquer some 43 million hectares of virgin and fallow lands in the steppes. About 20% of all USSR investments into agriculture in those years was absorbed by this project, a project which involved the resettling of farmers from ‘unpromising’ places. The project started off well enough with large increases in agricultural output, but intensive farming, and the use of chemicals to maintain grain yields led to a deterioration in yields. Soon, yields were inferior to those achieved in the ‘unpromising’ areas where farmers had been transported from. The message was to increase grain yield at all cost, but the project was deemed a failure. Against the backdrop of such mega landscape-altering and population-shifting schemes, nurturing Borshevik to supply almost free silage at a time when Soviet agriculture was still recovering from the war was not something that raised eyebrows, or if it did, not a great deal of attention was paid to dissenting voices.

Trokhym Denysovych Lysenko; (1898 – 1976)

Back in 1938, academician T. D. Lysenko who was appointed President of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences. He immediately started a campaign against ‘reactionary’ scientists who supported Mendelian genetics (George Mendel 1822-1884 is widely recognised as being the father of modern genetics). Soviet genetics à la Lysenko, drew on the Lamarkian concept of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. One way of looking at what Lysenko did, would be to say that he moved away from the Darwinian theory of natural selection (and ‘competition,’ whatever that is) being the basis of the development of species, towards the idea that characteristics can be nurtured. He sought to prove that individuals within species are cooperative and will sacrifice themselves for the greater good when necessary. In fact, his reaction against what he labelled western science went further than that. Lysenko appeared to deny one of the basic tenants of genetics; that plants and animals have relatively stable characteristics, encoded as genes, which they pass down to their children. Lysenko is reported to have considered such ideas reactionary, since they reinforced the status quo, and hold up the process of change[7]

Clearly, The Darwinian concept of a ‘struggle for existence’ made little headway in Soviet Russia. It was much safer at the time to promote the idea that the environment can nurture change in plants and animals. Change the environment and species will adapt. ‘Nurture’ to Lysenko and government alike wins the ‘nature versus nurture’ argument. Thus, wheat could be trained to be cultivated in stony soil and orange trees in Siberia. Wonderful. Perhaps the nurture argument would prove to be a winning argument over the course of time, plants do adapt to new environments, as do human beings eventually, but not necessarily within a few decades of even summers. 

A CCP propaganda poster from 1959 showing a good vegetable harvest

Peasants in Communist China in the1950s, whose leaders had adopted Lysenkoism were not the first to discover that wheat, when planted too close to each other does not behave in an ultra-civilised, self-sacrificial way. Wheat seedlings, it turned out, are not conscious entities willing to sacrifice their own individual existence for the benefit of all, they wanted to survive and fight it out for nutrients and water down there, especially when planted in poor soil, deeper than need be. Such nurturing experiments resulted in tens of millions of dead Chinese during the Great Chinese Famine (1959-1961). Lysenko’s influence on Stalin and of course the famines in Russia and Ukraine in the 1930s seems to have been one of making a bad situation far worse. 

By 1948 the western world found out just how tight Lysenko’s hold was on Soviet genetics. Western geneticists rushed in to criticise Lysenko’s work as breaching, they claimed, the basic requirements of scientific method, and fiercely attacked the subordination of Soviet science to politics. However, they perhaps had not noticed how quickly their own world was changing. Scientific progress was accelerating world-wide. Americans dropping atom bombs on Japan was only one example of this. It became clearer than ever before, that countries with the most advanced science would wield the most clout on the world stage, yet the extent to which research should be directed by government remained, and remains, a contentious issue. 

One can see reflections of this debate in post-war literature. The utopian novels of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley are only two examples of one literary genre, although utopian literature did not start in the 20th century of course. When discussing Borsheviks, John Wyndham’s 1951 post-apocalyptic novel: ‘The Day of The Triffids,’ immediately came to mind. The book was published in 1951, three years after the ‘Lysenko Affair’ broke in the UK. The flesh-eating triffids can be seen as the embodiment of Lysenko’s agro- and aero- biological theories. In chapter 2 of early editions of the book, the protagonist Bill Mason even said that the plants were developed in the USSR ‘…under a man named Lysenko, where a number of developments had taken place that could have been very successful, very silly, or very queer… if not all three at once.[8]’ The plants cooperate with one another, even if this means that one or more plants must be sacrificed to achieve a greater goal. The book was a bestseller and Arthur C. Clarke commented that it tells an immortal story.

Triffids or no Triffids, in the period 1965-1969, Borshevik seeds were distributed among 55 farms of the Moscow region and 67 farms in other regions of the RSFSR. At the end of the 1960s, seeds were distributed in Moldavia and other republics including the Chuy Valley of Kirgizia. From1961, the plant was introduced to Belorussia, Ukraine, the Baltic Republics, and Poland. 

In 1970, work on the introduction of Heracleum plants was moved to Moscow, when the former director of IB Komi AS USSR moved to the capital. One of the researchers, I.F. Satsyperova noted that it was impossible to obtain any form of Heracleum free of furocoumarins. She also noted that furocoumarins were found in meat and milk when livestock ate Borshevik as fodder, and this reduced their quality[9]. Other scientists concluded that the plant was monocarpic, giving seeds only once during its life cycle. Such research did not adversely affect further distribution of the plant around the Soviet Union. 

Academic support for the plant continued right up until the 1990s. The Secretary of the Department of General Biology of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, M.S. Gilarov wrote about Heracleum Sosnowski in his 1980-1984 report as the ‘most significant result in the biological sciences…’ When Soviet Agriculture collapsed in the late 1980s, the plant carried on proliferating regardless for two reasons: nobody took great interest in controlling the plant anymore, there were more important things to do – like earning money. Secondly, the plant self-distributed, first near the previous centres of cultivation and then at a considerable distance from them. 

It wasn’t until 2012 that Borshevik was de-registered from the list of agricultural achievements, and it was officially accepted that it had lost its value for agriculture. Eventually, in 2016, Borshevik was awarded the status of a weed, number 5506[10].  When the species later proved to be highly invasive and difficult to remove, people started to call it ‘Stalin’s Revenge.’

University of Guelph graduate student Meghan Grguric  (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Nowadays, the Russian government is keen to eradicate the plant, now a weed, but that is no easy task. Cutting it down, said Mehgan Grguric, a researcher from the University of Guelph’s Plant Sciences Department in 2016, is next to useless. “Hogweed is ridiculously persistent, I go in, I cut it down and a few weeks later there’s re-growth from the bottom and it will set flower and set seed… What a lot of people don’t understand is that you just can’t go in and control it one year, it’s like any invasive species[11],” she said. “Once it’s here, it’s here to stay. It’s hard to kick it out once it’s already invited itself in.” In other words, getting rid of this weed is possible, but it will take a concerted programme, right across the whole of Russia and beyond, over many years. 

Using chemicals like Bayer’s Roundup weed killer is not effective, Meghan said: “The problem with Roundup is that it doesn’t provide any residual control. So, a lot of seedlings come back after you’ve already sprayed, and it kills grasses.” Science will now have to be applied to find a way to solve this man-made problem. 

The UN has recently warned of a ‘steady stream’ of infectious diseases unless the world tackles wildlife exploitation’[12]. Perhaps, thanks to our heightened awareness of the environment at the present time, we should also make the effort to think more carefully about the relationship between science and plants, especially when plants indirectly or directly enter the food chain. As we look at Borshevik from a safe distance, perhaps with a mask and gloves on, it may be worth contemplating on the most important lesson these remnants of Lysenkoism hold for us. For me, this lesson revolves around the battle between empirical science and self-interested power holders. Perhaps unable to find the courage to do what we know is right, we can at least learn from other countries’ mistakes.


[1] https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/ornamental/flowers/cow-parsnip/cow-parsnip-information.htm

[2] M G Krivosheina and N A Overova 2019 IOP Conf. Ser.: Earth Environ. Sci. 350 n012013

[3] M G Krivosheina and N A Overova 2019 IOP Conf. Ser.: Earth Environ. Sci. 350 n012013

[4] M G Krivosheina and N A Overova 2019 IOP Conf. Ser.: Earth Environ. Sci. 350 n012013

[5] M G Krivosheina and N A Overova 2019 IOP Conf. Ser.: Earth Environ. Sci. 350 n012013

[6] https://en.topwar.ru/44216-hruschevschina-pervaya-perestroyka.html

[7] https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/12/trofim-lysenko-soviet-union-russia/548786/

[8] Eugenics, Literature and Culture in Post-0war Britian. Clare Hanson. Routledge, 2013. P.73

[9] Satsyperova I F 1984 Hogweeds of the USSR are new fodder plants (Leningrad: Nauka) pp 1-224

[10]  Дополнение в «Отраслевой классификатор сорных растений» № 384 021 310. Раздел: Двудольные многолетние корнестержневые. С. 37, код 5500. № 5506 — Борщевик Сосновского

[11] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/kitchener-waterloo/giant-hogweed-why-we-can-t-stop-the-spread-of-a-toxic-plant-1.3676663

[12] https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/stop-the-wildlife-trade-coronavirus-disease-climate-crisis-a9600991.html

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