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Hogweed Photo by Donna R. Ellis, University of Connecticut from Invasive Species

A couple of recent events led me down a curious path of nostalgia towards the rivers and flora of my youth. Firstly, I happened to play the old Genesis song The Return Of The Giant Hogweed while I had my mp3 player on random shuffle at work last week.

Secondly, I had recently listened to a BBC Radio 4 program about nostalgia, specifically the British kind. As an expatriate, I am prone to this emotion, and being British, am doubly so.

The program ran through the usual suspects of British art, popular and serious – the poems of Houseman, music from Elgar to The Kinks etc. etc. It reminded me of my own acute homesickness that I felt when I first moved to the United States in 1980, a feeling that really did not abate for about 10 years!

But it took the Genesis song to put a distinct image to last week's outbreak. The Giant Hogweed, Heracleum mantegazzianum is a member of the carrot family and close relative of the commonly found hogweed that grows in England. But unlike those plants, the Giant Hogweed is far from benign.

Heracleum mantegazzianum produces a very dangerous sap, that, on contact with the skin, leads to a severe skin condition whereby exposure to the ultra-violet component of sunlight cause painful blistering and rashes. The effects are lifelong, and if the sap should contact the eyes, can lead to blindness.

The Giant Hogweed was introduced into England from Russia during the 1800s, and became popular as an ornamental plant before its toxic effects were well understood. It is not hard to see why it became so popular – it is huge! It grows very rapidly and can reach 6m in height, dwarfing the common hogweed.

It rapidly colonizes open or disturbed ground, particularly that found close to rivers, and effectively establishes a monoculture eliminating the natural flora from its own infestation. The danger of the plant became known to me in the 1970s, around the time that the Genesis song was composed, by the reporting a series of incidents where young children had used the wide, open, stem of the plant as a blowpipe. In doing so, they got the sap into their mouths and onto their skin with dire consequences.

But I had never seen the Giant Hogweed, and was thus astonished and amazed one day, while walking alongside the River Wey (as pictured here), to stumble into an infestation of these noxious plants. Fortunately, knowing enough not to touch them, I only gazed at these vast monsters. They really did look malevolent, towering above me. Daring me to attack them, fully aware of their fearsome power.

These plants put a spell on me. I became fascinated by them. I would walk daily down to the riverside to watch their jaw-dropping growth – inches in a day – that seemed completely alien to the more sedate pace of Surrey's natural flora.

They might as well have been from an alien planet. Triffids, perhaps, as in the John Wyndham novel. Their most astonishing quality was their strangeness combined with their familiarity. In many ways, they just look like very large common hogweed. But that intangible quality of malevolance, derived in my own mind solely from the news reports, moves them into a different realm.

The Giant Hogweed came to represent the alien in my own world. And, in a curious way, when I moved the United Stated, I developed a sympathy for these great plants. I was now transplanted, albeit willingly, and although in many ways I differed not one bit from my new American neighbors, I was still conscious of my own strangeness in this new found land.

And now, I read the Giant Hogweed is beginning its steady conquest of the U.S.A. and Canada. It is now found in many of the northern States and southern Provinces, causing just as much alarm here as it did in England.

Somehow, with this news, comes a sense that my past is blending with my present. It is a strange feeling.

(Updated 2010).

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