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  • I've always had a thing for noxious weeds.

    Not a love, or a hatred. A fascination, almost a mesmerism.

    I think it comes from my very early childhood. When I maybe two or three years old, a bigger kid from up the road pulled out a weed with a particularly well-developed root system and pushed the mass of earthy tendrils into my face. I remember my mouth and eyes filling with soil, my skin recoiling from the wormy roots that tickled my skin.

    A particularly horrifying experience that I still relive when I put my hand into an aging bag of onions or potatoes and feel the fresh sprouts of germination.


    So there I was, a particularly sensitized boy, when I first came across the giant hogweed.

    I found them growing by the River Wey just outside of Guildford. I used to walk my blind dog Ted across Shalford Park and follow a path down to the riverside. I was trying to guide the poor animal away from the water's edge, paying more attention to him than to where I was. Suddenly I found myself surrounded by large, strangely unfamiliar, rich green incised leaves. I stopped and looked up. Towering above me were a dense collection of umbrella-like flower heads, each supported by a thick blotchy stem.

    Where had they come from? I was sure I had not seen them before. How could I miss such a massive plant? And what was it?

    A little research in some botanical books soon gave me my answer. They were Heracleum mantegazzianum, an invasive species introduced into England from the Caucasus region as an ornamental plant for particularly noteworthy estates.

    What did not seem to be clear to these early botanical enthusiasts were the decided drawbacks of the giant hogweed. It is a prolific seeder, effectively, by virtue of its giant leaves, establishing a dense monoculture on riverbanks and other well-irrigated areas.

    It is also poisonous. Poisonous in a most devilish way too. The sap contains furocoumarins, a particularly nasty toxin that binds to a cell's DNA and kills it. This reaction requires sunlight. You can splatter yourself in giant hogweed sap in the dark without any effect. Walk into the light, and severe phytophotodermatis will ravage and scar your skin, and, if enough gets into your eyes, will blind you.

    Very nasty.

    I kept a healthy distance between me and the plants after learning all of this. But they continued to fascinate me. Not just their size but their incredible rate of growth during the summer, rising up to 15 feet high in the space of two months.

    Later I found out that the hogweed had been serenaded by Genesis in their song "The Return Of The Giant Hogweed". That sort of put the icing on the cake as regards the plant's creepy coolness.

    These days, they seem to be everywhere where there is a relatively temperate climate and lots of water. In Europe and North America too. These particular beauties (if I may use that word) were photographed in Loxwood, England on one of my trips home a few years back. Finding them again was a thrill.
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