A piece of Soviet history that just won't go away

  • 2005-06-15
  • By Peter Walsh
RIGA - In many people's eyes, the most visible testimony to the Soviet occupation of Latvia is the abundance of dilapidated factories and crumbling tenement blocks that remain a prominent feature of the national landscape.

But there exists a bizarre and slightly less obvious Soviet legacy that has taken deep root in vast swathes of the countryside. The Latvane may sound like a quaint paronym of its host country, and to the innocent eye it may look like a majestic plant proudly standing tall in fields, along riverbanks and near tranquil country roads. Yet the Latvane is anything but Latvian, and is anything but quaint to its unfortunate victims.

The story behind how the plant came to Latvia is a fascinating insight into the self-defeating logic of Soviet collective thinking. Ever since it was introduced to the country in the 1960s, the Latvane has become something of a rural nightmare. Farmers struggle to contain it on their land. Unsuspecting passers-by get severely injured by it every year. And a small team of government-backed scientists have found it almost impossible to come up with a suitable way of exterminating it.

The root

of the problem

The Latvane 's or Giant Hogweed as it's known in English 's was brought to Latvia all the way from Georgia in 1968. The idea came from a team of scientists working for the Priekulu Selekcijas Stacija (Priekuli Selection Station), which was responsible for selecting the introduction of new plant species to help agricultural practices, as well as developing new strains of crops that could survive the harsh Latvian winters.

The Latvane only grows in limited numbers in its native North Caucasus because of its specific climate requirements. It thrives in moist, calcified soil and partial shade, which 's combined with the plant's robustness 's made it seem ideally suited to Latvia.

The original idea was to use the plant for cow feed because of its high sugar content, according to Kaspars Goba, a farmer and biologist who recently made a documentary film about the Latvane.

"The plan was to cut and grind the plant, store it in silage where it would ferment, and then feed it to the cows in winter. But the problem was the cows didn't actually like it. Although its sugar content was high, it was still very bitter to taste. You can see this by eating honey that has come from bees living in areas with a high density of Latvane. It's strangely sweet and bitter tasting at the same time," he explains.

The Latvane was first introduced in Barkava and Cesis. Yet, it wasn't long before the Priekuli scientists realized they had made a big mistake. Not only were cows unimpressed by the fodder derived from the plant, but the weed quickly turned out to be far hardier than they had suspected.

The plant, which can grow up to 10 or 15 feet, rapidly colonized the surrounding land. It flowers for about two weeks at the end of June and each flower contains somewhere between 60,000 to 100,000 seeds, which can spread far and wide through wind, river and pollination.

The Latvane also has an extremely elaborate fibrous root system that can survive for up to 10 years, even if you cut the plant off at the stem. And because of its size, it easily overshadows and eventually kills off any surrounding smaller plants and weeds.

Agronomist and Latvane expert Aigars Olukalns explains the full extent of the problem. "The plant was introduced to Latvia in 1968 over some five to 10 hectares of land. By the end of the 1980s, it occupied about 120 hectares. Today it occupies more than 13,000 hectares of the countryside," Olukalns says.

In Soviet times the collective farmers were able to keep the situation under check through a sort of annual culling ritual. Hundreds of people would dress up in plastic clothing to protect themselves from the plant's acidic sap and hack away with machetes so that the Latvane was at least unable to produce any seeds and spread further. But the situation worsened with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early '90s. Agriculture virtually ground to a halt for many years, and the plant was left to flourish. It is now found in parts of the countryside far from the two sites where it was originally planted.

Kaspars Goba has long been fascinated by Latvanes, or Bolsheviki as they were popularly called. He has been fighting them for many years on his Cesis farm and knows just how difficult they are to deal with.

"As a child I used to put on some protective clothing and try to cut them down with a machete once a year. I'd slash them and then quickly run away so not to get caught by the huge stem as it fell down. Twenty years later and I'm still having to do the same thing," he says.

Stemming the tide

The Latvane is a beautiful and impressive plant to look at. Its huge, umbrella-shaped flower towers over the rather daintier and more delicate-looking indigenous Latvian flowers and plants. But the plant is extremely hazardous to humans and has given rise to several grimace-inducing modern-day folk stories.

The plant's sap contains furocoumarins, which can cause a skin reaction known as photodermititis. When this occurs in people, their skin becomes extremely sensitive to sunlight's ultraviolet rays, resulting in excruciating and long-lasting burns that often leave black scars. Eye contact with the acid can lead to temporary or even permanent blindness.

But serious injury can only occur if you touch the plant in sunlight. According to Goba, you could safely swim in a bathtub full of its sap at night.

While farmers and locals are only too aware of the plant's danger, children are especially at risk, according to Andris Berzins, a professor at Latvia University's Agriculture Institute. "The biggest problem is with children, because they don't know the danger. Boys playing in the fields often break off the plant's stems to use as water guns or play revolvers 's you know how children are. The giant plant is quite alluring for an imaginative child," he explains.

Likewise, unsuspecting city folk visiting the countryside for a day are equally at risk. One popular story that often gets told when the subject of Latvane comes up is about a man who desperately needs to use the toilet while driving along a quiet country road. He sees a Latvane and figures that its large leaves would make a perfect piece of improvised toilet paper and disappears into the bushes. The people waiting in the car suddenly hear a heart-rending scream and see the man frantically run out into the open with his trousers flapping around his ankles. Needless to say, no one knows if the story is actually true or not.

For several years now, a team of government-funded scientists have been studying the Latvane to develop an extermination method. But they found that ridding the Latvian countryside of the plant will be extremely hard, if not outright impossible.

Ploughing is one effective means of destroying the Latvane's complex root system, but the plant grows in vast numbers by rivers and roadsides, hardly ideal terrain for a plough. And although an effective herbicide was developed, it faces its own obstacles.

"When Latvanes grow in farmland and open areas, it's not so difficult," Berzins explains. "We've developed a herbicide that can kill them off. The problem now is that this plant has spread into state-protected forest and Lakeland areas, which we're not allowed to touch for ecological reasons. We can't go in there with herbicides or it would kill off other important vegetation, pollute the lakes and harm animals - the entire ecosystem."

Aigars Olukalns agrees that the task is a hopeless one, although he does offer one unlikely and extremely simple solution.

"It will take at least a century to completely get rid of the Latvane," he says. "But the plant could be used for sheep grazing. Sheep happily eat them, as in Scotland, but unfortunately we have hardly any sheep in Latvia."