Nothing can stop them
Around every river and canal
Their power is growing
Stamp them out
We must destroy them
They infiltrate each city
With their thick dark warning odour
They are invincible
They seem immune to all our herbicidal battering
Long ago in the Russian hills
A Victorian explorer found
The regal Hogweed by a marsh
He captured it and brought it home
Botanical creature stirs
Royal beast did not forget
He came home to London
And made a present of the Hogweed
To the Royal Gardens at Kew
Waste no time
They are approaching
Hurry now, we must protect ourselves
And find some shelter
Strike by night
They are defenseless
They all need the sun
To photosensitize their venom
Still they're invincible
Still they're immune to all our herbicidal battering
Fashionable country gentlemen
Had some cultivated wild gardens
In which they innocently planted
The Giant Hogweed throughout the land
Botanical creature stirs
Royal beast did not forget
Soon they escaped, spreading their seed
Preparing for an onslaught
Threatening the human race
Mighty Hogweed is avenged
Human bodies soon will know our anger
Kill them with your hogweed hairs
Giant Hogweed lives!
The final line ("Giant Hogweed lives") is inaudible on the original studio version, but discernible on the 2008 remix and loud and clear on live versions.
Return of the Giant Hogweed
From our brief pastoral respite, our camera of the mind follows the bus for a bit as it ambles out of the village, and floats onwards - eventually letting the bus go and settling on a clump of unlikely looking plants growing near the ditch on the side of the road. They begin to stir, and the music begins to play...
The really interesting thing about the Giant Hogweed, is that like a lot of Peter Gabriel's lyrics, they are based on something real!
Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum), is a member of the family Apiaceae, native to the Caucasus Region and Central Asia. ("Long ago in the Russian hills") It may reach 2-5 metres (rarely to 7 m) tall. Except for size, it closely resembles Common Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium), Heracleum sosnowskyi or Garden Angelica (Angelica archangelica).
It is further distinguished by a stout, dark reddish-purple stem and spotted leaf stalks that are hollow and produce sturdy bristles. Stems vary from 3-8 cm in diameter, occasionally up to 10 cm. The stem shows a purplish-red pigmentation with raised nodules. Each purple spot on the stem surrounds a hair, and there are large, coarse white hairs at the base of the leaf stalk. The plant has deeply incised compound leaves which grow up to 1-1.7 m in width.("Kill them with your Hogweed hairs")
Many foreign plants were introduced to Britain in the 19th century, mainly for ornamental reasons. Giant hogweed is native to the Caucasus mountains of southwest Asia. It was brought to Europe by 19th century naturalist explorers (CABI, no date) and subsequently escaped, spreading throughout much of Europe and the UK. ("A Victorian explorer found the regal Hogweed by a marsh, He captured it and brought it home.") A few have become aggressively dominant, creating serious problems in some areas. It is now widespread throughout the British Isles especially along riverbanks. ("Around every river and canal their power is growing.") By forming dense stands they can displace native plants and reduce wildlife interests. It has also spread in the northeastern and northwestern United States. It is equally a pernicious invasive species in Germany, France and Belgium, overtaking the local species. It was introduced in France in the 19th century by botanists, much appreciated by beekeepers.
Once again, the album Nursery Cryme mentions a Victorian theme.
Giant Hogweed is a phototoxic plant. Its sap can cause phytophotodermatitis (severe skin inflammations) when the skin is exposed to sunlight or to UV-rays. ("They all need the sun to photosensitize their venom.") Initially the skin colours red and starts itching. Then blisters form as in burns within 48 hours. They form black or purplish scars, which can last several years. Hospitalisation may become necessary. Presence of minute amounts of sap in the eyes, can lead to temporary or even permanent blindness. These reactions are caused by the presence of linear derivatives of furocoumarin in its leaves, roots, stems, flowers, and seeds. These chemicals can get into the nucleus of the epithelial cells, forming a bond with the DNA, causing the cells to die. The brown colour is caused by the production of melanin by furocoumarins. In Germany, where this plant has become a real nuisance, there were about 16,000 victims in 2003. Herbicides such as 2,4-D, TBA, MCPA and dicamba will kill above ground parts but are reportedly not particularly effective on persistent rootstalks. ("They seem immune to all our herbicidal battering.")
An actual representation of Giant Hogweed is recreated on the back cover of Nursery Cryme, as well as the inside gatefold in the picture that accompanies the lyrics to the song.
Another side to this seems to be the almsot science-fiction edge that Peter gives to this tale - endowing the Giant Hogweed with more sentient faculties. On almost every mention of actual Giant Hogweed I can find, it seems there is always the inevitable reference to Triffids.
The triffid is a highly venomous fictional plant species, the titular antagonist from the 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham and also later appears in Simon Clark's novel The Night of the Triffids.
Triffids were also featured in the 1957 BBC radio dramatization of Wyndham's book, in a considerably altered film which was produced in 1962, and in a more faithful television serial which was produced by the BBC in 1981.
The name may be related to the Trifid Nebula, a region of star formation originally named by John Herschel because it appeared to have three components, resembling a three-lobed flower in photographs taken in visible light.
Wyndham hints at but never fully reveals the origin of his triffid species. Twenty or more years prior to the events of The Day of the Triffids, the original "gossamer-slung" triffid seeds, stolen from a Soviet research facility, were dispersed worldwide after the aircraft they were packed in was destroyed at high-altitude during the Cold War.
Soon after the discovery of the first triffid seeds, the story's scientists learned that their bodies were a potentially lucrative source of protein and natural oils.
Despite their dangerous nature, it was determined that the value of a triffid outweighed the risks, and people began to cultivate them as a commercial crop. This resulted in triffid seeds being spread all over the world in a comparatively short space of time: within 20 years, triffids were a common crop in numerous countries.
Though triffids kept by private breeders and collectors had their stings docked for safety reasons, most commercially grown triffids were left with their stings attached, as docking was found to reduce the quality of the oil that they produced.
This situation persisted for many years, until a burst of light, initially thought to be from a comet, but later speculated to be a high-altitude weapons discharge, blinded much of the human race.
Without sighted keepers to maintain their fences and to check the tethers that kept them in place, small groups of triffids began escaping from their farms and established wild populations. Urban triffids, with nobody to prevent their stings from regrowing, soon joined them.
Although slow moving and lacking in intelligence, newly freed triffids found blind humans to be easy targets and began to attack them.
As starvation, disease, accidents, and infighting further reduce human numbers, the increasingly bold and numerous triffids begin to take over, forcing humans out of the cities and into isolated hamlets and fortified farms in the countryside.
A final word on this is that Peter Gabriel is a vegetarian, and this could be a fabulous way to vent some veggie frustration at meat eaters by having plants come and eat them.