Today I decided to face my fears about Giant Hogweed. I have had a huge fascination and fear of these plants since I was a child, and can’t believe that many people don’t know of their dangers or would be unable to identify them face to face.
Giant Hogweed (Heraculaneum Mantagazzanium) originated in the Caucasus, but was introduced into Britain in the 19th century as an exotic plant which would withstand our cool climate. Many wealthy landowners and owners of stately homes planted it their gardens as a status symbol, and it became so popular that seed seeds were distributed to gardeners throughout the US, and were also spread overseas into Europe, something which has regrettably cause it to be listed as one of the most invasive and hated plants in history.
It is part of the Umbelliferae family, whose species also include cow parsnip, edible vegetables and herbs that we know such as carrot, celery, coriander, dill, fennel, parsley, and parsnip, but also very poisonous hemlocks. The sap of giant hogweed causes phytophotodermatitis, and the symptoms – horrific blisters and scarring – can last for up to seven years. It can also cause blindness if it makes contact with your eyes. These serious reactions are caused by organic chemical compounds in the plants called furocoumarins .
Hogweed causes nasty burns and blisters which can reoccur for up to seven years
I found a few stalks of what appeared to be dead Hogweed back in September,( making sure there were no seed heads attached of course) and have had them drying out in my studio ever since. I got the idea of using Hogweed as a medium from a guy called David Gowman (otherwise known as Mr. Fire Man) who has a woodwind band called the Legion of Flying Monkeys. They fashion their own woodwind instruments from unusual materials, including Hogweed. I contacted him back in August to ask his advice about using the Hogweed, and he told me it should be safe to touch once dry. This encouraged me to pursue it as a medium which I could use, but I have been reticent about letting me skin come into contact with it, despite it being dry!
Clad in multiple layers of clothing, goggles, a dust mask and gloves, I set about lifting the large stalks to the door, where I began to saw through them with a hacksaw. I wanted to create a small bedframe, as a concept I have thought up concerning invasive plants and how they are perceived by humans. I began by cutting four lengths of equal size, (about 45cm long) from the thick bottom end of the stalks. I then cut a couple of smaller pieces to begin to create a frame. I cut a hole in each of the large pieces to see if the smaller pieces would fit in as a suitable method of construction. This seemed to work, and I created to H shapes which I will next join together.
Looking critically at what I had made so far, I noticed a white skin over the stalks, which hid their beautiful ridges. I decided that I needed to take my time more with this medium, as it would be pointless rushing things, so I carefully took time to peel the skin off the lengths I had cut. After the 3rd, I gave up for the day, as I felt quite tired, and needed to have my wits about me when working with this unpredictable medium.
Below : After peeling skin to expose ridges
Whilst trimming some ends from the stalks, I noticed the cross sections had a cellular feel to them, and could be interesting to use in a different type of formation. Thinking back to what inspired me about Krajcberg’s work, I also have a notion to use the hogweed stems to hang work from, perhaps making a sort of hanging which depicts the walk I have taken to discover the Hogweed, in an abstract sort of way.
I think that the next stage will be to take some rubbings from the stems, and possibly some prints using cross sections and also across the ridges of the stalk. I’m amazed that (so far) I have managed to handle this plant without getting injured, and lets hope that my luck continues!