Bolševník days

Photo: GerardM, Creative Commons 3.0

During the first weeks of May I often slip into Wellington boots, tough plastic gloves and a seemingly out of place heavy raincoat to wander about a slice of the Czech countryside with a spade and large plastic bag. I hasten to add that is not some kinky fetish wear, some stealing mission or that I am burying a corpse or two. No, May days are bolševník days.

Photo: GerardM, Creative Commons 3.0
The precautions are against the plant – better known perhaps as giant hogweed. It produces a nasty acidic type liquid, usually at the bottom of the stem, that can inflict nasty burns.

Let me explain: I have a country cottage, sometimes exaggerated into a vast estate for the benefit of the envious, and the towering Day of the Triffids type invasive species is threatening to land up on the doorstep as a permanent and uninvited guest.

Late April, early May, is when the spiky leaves and hairy stem of what could quickly grow into a three metre high giant, first start to sprout. Caught early they can be pulled up before the deep roots sink too far or sprayed with a herbicide. The latter seems lethal about half the time but cannot be used near streams where the plant, unfortunately, thrives.

Left alone these plants can soon cover whole fields with their large leaves creating a desert for all other plant and animal life. Cows can apparently graze them but otherwise the almost indestructible native of the Caucasus has no natural enemies.

That is unfortunately the scene around large parts of Mariánské Lázně, where my chalupa or country cottage is located. Actually, if you get off the train from Prague and step out the main entrance you can see two examples of giant hogweed in the small park opposite the station. I sometimes think that the town council should redesign its coat of arms inserting a hogweed or two into the corners to reflect reality.

The Spring battle with bolševník started when it began turning up on the banks of the small river which runs by the cottage a few years ago. The valley is one of the few round the spa town where it has still to take a hold. Perhaps it was there earlier but I had not noticed. It does not really matter, it is clearly keen to put down roots.

One of the most disappointing aspects of my personal crusade is that it seems to be just that. There is for example one hogweed specimen now growing in the village square. I have that marked down to be dealt with next weekend. Neighbours seem to regard the giant plant with indifference. There is even one woman – who comes every week to mow her lawn, lie on it for an hour and then leave – who has one hogweed specimen growing in her otherwise well kempt garden.

The problem is that that a few plants left unchallenged can rapidly infect a large area with seeds carried downstream by streams, wild animals or on the tyres of the massive forestry lorries.

Photo: Farbenfreude, Creative Commons 3.0
At the local council, they are aware of the problem - they could hardly miss it - but do seem able or willing to do much about it. In theory hogweed growers, which undoubtedly includes the council itself, regional council and state-run National Property Fund, should cut the plant to prevent it seeding and spreading. Fines can be imposed if this does not happen, but I have never heard of them being imposed.

I should point out at this stage that this whole piece of countryside is a protected natural landscape area so you might have expected some more effort to tackle the problem. The nature conservation authority lists mapping the invasion as one of its main tasks. I am afraid that I picture them as French generals in 1940 watching their defences bypassed or rolled up over a series of charts.

The neighbouring region Pilsen does seem to spray the invader along its roadsides, though I can tell them I have seen plants already approaching the city. I have seen a clump along the railway track not 20 kilometres away and another not far from the main road from Stříbro. Another 100 kilometres or so and the giant hogweed will be on my doorstep in Prague as well.