x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Botanical fluff-up leaves Muscovites sneezing

For a few weeks in early summer, the Russian capital is assaulted by a blizzard of cottony tufts of seed released by thousands of female balsam poplars that adorn Moscow.

MOSCOW // The weather in the heart of the Soviet Union was unusually dry in the summer of 1986, and Arthur Hartman, Ronald Regan's ambassador to Moscow, was having an equally unusual allergic reaction. His head was swelling, and he was having trouble breathing. So severe was the US ambassador's condition that he had to be shuttled to a hospital in Wiesbaden, West Germany, for a diagnosis. The offending allergen? A signature sign of summer in Moscow: poplar fluff.

For a few weeks in early summer, the Russian capital is assaulted by a blizzard of cottony tufts of seed released by the tens of thousands of female balsam poplars that adorn Moscow. The fluff, known in Russian as "pukh", is irrepressible. It drifts into apartments, automobile air conditioners and, occasionally, the respiratory tracts of innocent city dwellers. Mr Hartman said he was not the victim of a direct pukh attack, but that doctors told him to avoid the fluff. "It was the first time I'd ever been allergic to anything," Mr Hartman said in a telephone interview from Toulouse, France, where he now spends his summers.

"They said: 'As soon as you get away from the pukh, you're in good shape.'" The prevalence of pukh is a remnant of short-sighted Soviet city planners, who chose to decorate the city with balsam poplars as a quick way to add some green to the city. The aromatic trees grow quickly, provide excellent shade and, scientists say, soak up a large amount of carbon dioxide compared with other trees. Unfortunately, the masterminds behind the campaign planted female rather than male specimens, resulting in the annual deluge of fluff.

"They didn't think it through," said Lilian Plotnikova, a senior dendrologist, or tree expert, at the Central Botanical Garden of the Russian Academy of Sciences. "A lot of things are done that way. Sometimes organisations involving city greening don't always listen to us scientists." The phenomenon has plagued cities since the 1930s, when the female trees were planted in Moscow under the regime of Joseph Stalin, and was exacerbated by a second planting campaign under the president, Nikita Khrushchev, in the 1960s. In recent years, Moscow City Hall has embarked on a plan to replace the female trees with male specimens, but only when a natural opportunity arises - when a tree is already dying.

"No one is going to simply chop down such useful trees en masse," Marina Orlova, a city spokeswoman, told state-run Vesti-FM radio. "It would be quite stupid to do so." Pukh can be as destructive as it is annoying. Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry occasionally issues warnings about the fire hazards presented by the fluff, which rambunctious children often set alight with matches. Every year these underage pyrotechnists leave property smouldering in their wake, and not only in Moscow. Last week, unidentified suspects set fire to a pile of pukh in the southern Urals city of Kopeisk, burning two nearby wooden garages to the ground.

Balmy temperatures hit Moscow early this year, meaning pukh came early. It has been swirling around the city for the past weeks, but a rainy spell, and intermittent thunderstorms has kept the fluff largely at bay. This was not the case everywhere in Moscow, however, judging by the reaction of local bloggers. "Cursed be those who plant the poplars in Moscow," wrote a 22-year-old named Zhenya. "The pukh even flew into the system block of my computer. And I just cleaned it two weeks ago!"

"We need to take an axe and chop down every poplar," another blogger, nicknamed "Babybat7", wrote. "I can't stand the pukh anymore." cschreck@thenational.ae