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Moscow ‘Joke of Nature’ Mimics Snow

June 12, 1998

MOSCOW (AP) _ The snowy flakes come swirling out of the summer sky, wafting along sidewalks and piling up against doorways in drifts. Children try to catch it. Their parents try to keep it out of their clothes.

Although it looks and acts a lot like it, it’s not snow. It’s ``pukh.″ And it marks the arrival of summer in the Russian capital as surely as its colder cousin marks the winter.

``It’s sort of a joke of nature,″ says 30-year-old Muscovite Dmitry Kratotsutsky. ``It’s our summer snow.″

Pukh is the fluff released by flowers of the poplar trees that seem to grow on every street in Moscow. And nearly as soon as the sun comes out and the snow melts into a memory, pukh begins to float out of the sky.

While many Muscovites see the comedy in the phenomenon, it’s no laughing matter. In fact, complaints about pukh are on the rise _ in part because this year seems to be the worst in recent memory.

``It’s disgusting,″ says Elena Petrova, watching the white bits drift through the air outside her apartment house. ``It gets everywhere.″

She’s not exaggerating. It floats into eyes, noses, and morning cups of coffee. It clogs drainage pipes and window screens. It scoots under furniture and into neglected corners, to swirl out months later as if in jest.

But it’s not just a nuisance. It is also blamed for allergies, asthma, and even fires.

``It’s very flammable,″ says Svetlana Vorobyova, a tree inspector for Moscow’s city forestry department. ``All it takes is a cigarette butt or match.″

Like so many other aspects of life in Moscow, the pukh problem has a political dimension.

It seems that after World War II, dictator Josef Stalin ordered a facelift for the capital that included a tree-planting campaign. Poplars are hardy and grow very quickly, and so they were planted by the thousands.

Apparently, says Liliana Plotnikova, chief of the tree department at Moscow’s Botanical Garden, no one paid attention to which gender of tree they were putting in the ground. Botanists usually recommend planting only male trees, which don’t flower and don’t produce pukh. Of course, one can’t be sure of a tree’s gender until it matures, and that takes 15 years.

``The goal was to make the city more beautiful and they did,″ Plotnikova says. ``They just didn’t think about all the consequences.″

You can easily control a tree’s pukh production by pruning it and removing the buds before they flower. In Soviet times, teams of city workers were sent out each year to do just that, and it helped.

But since 1990, the city government hasn’t allocated any money for poplar pruning, says Alexandra Matsuk, head of the tree preservation department at the city environment agency, and so they’ve literally gone to seed.

Climatic factors also have made this year’s pukh season perhaps the worst in memory, says Plotnikova of the Botanical Garden. Spring was unusually cold, and early June was unusually warm. As a result, she says, the trees seem to be dumping their pukh all at once, instead of spreading it out over a few weeks or a month.

America can be blamed, at least indirectly, for Moscow’s pukh problem.

Plotnikova says that the variety of poplar most common in Moscow is an American import, the balsam poplar, which is native to the northern United States and Canada. It was brought to Russia more than a century ago because it endures winter better than the silver or pyramid poplars more common elsewhere in Europe.

Of course, as any visitor here could guess, it also produces more pukh than its European cousins.

Plotnikova insists that the poplars’ benefits outweigh their costs. Few trees can better withstand the rigors of Russia’s climate and Moscow’s dirty streets. They provide particularly pleasant shade, dappled and cool.

In the end, many Muscovites agree with her. In fact, most seem to take much the same attitude toward their summer snow as they do toward their winter snow: Resignation.

``It’s part of nature,″ says 45-year-old Natalia Dvoyeva. ``We just have to put up with it.″

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