Anyone would have thought that it was snowing in the park this morning. Large quantities of fluffy white stuff was falling onto the ground and settling on our hair and clothes. But it turns out that it wasn’t snow but something that Muscovites refer to as Pukh, the tufty seeds of the Poplar tree.
I’d heard tales about this phenomenon before moving to Moscow but today was the first time I’d found large enough drifts to collect a ball of it in my hand.
It actually looks quite magical falling down gently from the trees, and I found it quite mesmerising – until some ended up in my mouth and then it didn’t seem quite so magical after all! In fact getting some in your mouth can be more than just unpleasant. According to the New York Times in 1986 the then US Ambassador inhaled some and suffered from such a serious allergic reaction that he was evacuated to Germany for treatment. That might be an extreme case but a good many people with asthma and hay fever find that this is not a great time of year to be in Moscow.
Stalin usually gets the blame for the large numbers of Poplar trees in the city. I’ve heard it said that the female, tuft bearing, Poplar was his favourite tree and no-one dared tell him of the medical problems caused by planting quite so many. While it is true that he ordered large numbers of trees to be planted in the 1930s, the journalist who wrote the New York Times article above has done a little more homework than most and found that actually the big increase in Poplars occurred in the 1960s. It would seem that the tree was chosen simply because it was fast growing (if you are in the UK and once made the mistake of planting a Leylandii hedge then you’ll understand!) and provided lots of shade from the hot summer sun.
Due not only to allergic reactions but also to the fire hazard it creates the Moscow Times reports that city officials have decided that the days of Pukh are numbered and are searching for a suitable tree to replace the Poplar. If you don’t suffer from hay fever then you may need to marvel at the summer snow while you can.