A regular reader of this blog has reprimanded me for my cavalier treatment of the Hogweed Controversy. I had said, with a little bit of my tongue in my cheek, that Giant Hogweed had got itself an unfair reputation as a ferocious part of our natural flora, but my reader took issue with this, implying, I suppose, that it was no laughing matter for those who felt the full force of its venom.
This has meant I have had to thoroughly research hogweed, because it would be quite wrong of me to minimise the hazards of walking through the woods.
The first thing I did was to go back to the plants in question, pull them up, smear my hands and face with the leaves, and push my nose into the flower head. I experienced no ill-effects, and concluded that I was right to be sceptical.
However, your blogger is not so easily satisfied. He is a fearless and intrepid searcher after Truth.. He is, after all, nearly blind. He could, perish the thought, be mistaken, and, in fact, had been rubbing his skin with wild carrot, whose flowers are easily confused with hogweed.
So I took pictures and returned to the house to consult Guides, Identification Charts, and our new friend, the Internet. No-one must be able to accuse me of not being thorough, or of not carrying out a proper risk-assessment.
The Truth must be known, even if the fall-out destroys me and goes to the heart of the nation’s Establishment. If necessary, the Oligarchy will be exposed for what it is . . . an oligarchy!
It soon became clear that there are two Hogweeds. There is just plain-and-simple Hogweed, which is widespread, and which is also known as cow parsnip, which sounds nicer. The other hodweed is Giant Hogweed, and this is a different kettle of fish altogether.
I am, right here and now, prepared to apologise to my critics and admit that I was, in fact, smearing my body with cow parsnip.
However, my research has shown that cow parsnip is just as venomous as Giant Hogweed.
So now we come to Giant Hogweed, the vegetative villain of the towpath.
It has a fascinating history.
It was originally introduced to the UK about 400 years ago from the Caucasus. It was a piece of garden exotica, growing, as it did, to 15 feet high. There is no record of it causing any harm, or of it making a break for the wild. It was a rather ugly, but well-behaved horticultural conversation piece.
Then a rather strange thing seemed to happen. It can be quite precisely dated.
Around 1970, the Giant Hogweed suddenly escaped from its borders and spread along rivers and canals. At the same time, hospitals were inundated with children with ulcerated faces and hands. The Giant Hogweed produces a chemical in its sap that causes severe irritation on exposure to bright sunlight (a process known as photo-something or other). The children were using this new plant to make blowpipes and such. The sap was going all over them like jam from a jam sandwich.
Panic struck the nation, as you can imagine. These Russian triffids were poisoning our children. The public demanded the destruction of the Giant Hogweed.
It was put on the official list of undesirable aliens, and the citizenry was allowed to kill it wherever it was found, even in churchyards. It is illegal in the UK to plant it or in any way encourage it to grow.
It is so pernicious that I was able to handle it through the 1970’s, when I would go out at the weekend along rivers to destroy it, and found it OK to handle so long as I didn’t come into contact with the sap. This has obviously made me too blasé, so it was able to wait till I was blind and then it could pretend to be a cow parsnip.
Cow parsnip buds are edible. Richard Mabey, the naturalist, describes them as “succulent”. Giant Hogweed is not succulent in any part of its body.
Learn to tell the difference, Steve.