Giant hogweed plagues western Bohemia

Giant hogweed, photo: Marie-Claire, Creative Commons 3.0

In 1862 a certain count Metrnych from west Bohemia was traveling through the Caucasus when he came across a plant he'd never seen before - Heracleum, also known as giant hogweed. Fascinated, the count brought back seedlings home for his gardens in Kynzvart Chateau. Much to his delight the giant hogweed immediately took root - and so the count brought this invasive and noxious weed to the Bohemian lands. His legacy has not been forgotten - today towns in west Bohemia are still fighting this toxic invader.

Giant hogweed, photo: Marie-Claire, Creative Commons 3.0
In Czech it is called bolsevnik - a term that has given rise to many jokes being so close to the detested bolsevik. However, the bolsevnik is no laughing matter. Especially in western Bohemia where it spread from meadow to meadow and has now become a serious problem.

The bolsevnik or giant hog weed is not a plant you could possibly overlook - it is over two and a half meters tall with large compound leaves and broad clusters of white or purplish flowers. Many of the locals have learnt the hard way just how dangerous it can be. Touching it can cause severe burns, blisters and even permanent scarring. Temporary blindness may result if the sap gets into the eyes. Doctor Karel Pizinger who has treated many cases of severe skin irritation from the plant says it is especially dangerous for children and people susceptible to allergies.

Giant hogweed, photo: GerardM, Creative Commons 3.0
"The toxic substance contained in the stem and leaves can cause severe skin irritation especially if the affected area is exposed to sunlight immediately after coming into contact with the plant. Patients sometimes come to me with burns and blisters several centimeters in size."

Although the bolsevnik can be found in various parts of the country the situation is worst in west Bohemia where it has invaded the vicinity of Marianske Lazne, Cheb, Klatovy and Horazdovice. In most areas bolsevnik "colonies" are regularly cut down. But in others - such as Horazdovice - the authorities have called in pest control teams to deal with the problem. This means injecting every single hogweed with an effective pesticide. Ladislav Panuska who was called to Horazdovice says it was a good decision.

"We were alerted to forty plants in the town's immediate vicinity - but in actual fact we found many more."

For years now town halls have attempted to root out the offensive plant but the hated bolsevnik always finds a way. Since one plant produces around 80,000 seeds it is not difficult to figure out how. Having once taken root in Bohemia count Metrnych's "decorative garden plant" is clearly planning to stay.