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Saturday, July 11, 1998 Published at 15:17 GMT 16:17 UK

Moscow's frustrated trees

The Moscow Kremlin is surrounded by large trees

If you're an asthma sufferer, this is not the best time of the year to visit Moscow - and it's all Stalin's fault. As BBC correspondent Robert Parsons reports from the Russian captial, it was the Soviet dictator's idea to plant thousands of trees around the city, but it seems he did so with scant regard for their sexual needs.

The result is catastrophic for Moscow residents, and not just for those who wheeze and sneeze.

[ image: Robert Parsons, the BBC correspondent in Moscow]
Robert Parsons, the BBC correspondent in Moscow
It looks like a plague of dandelions, a summer snow storm that fills the air and covers the dusty streets in a film of white down. It's called pukh and in Russian it rhymes with Winnie the Pukh - but it's not in the least bit sticky.

The pollen of the female poplar tree may look beautiful as it floats on the breeze of a dappled summer evening but - believe me - it's a menace. Pukh sneeks insidiously into every nook and cranny of your existence.

BBC Moscow correspondent, Robert Parsons reports on another catastrophic legacy of Stalinism
When I wake in the morning it's gummed to my eyelids, leaving me to face the first moments of the day in a clouded haze, when I sit down for breakfast it clogs my coffee, when I step outside it fills my nostrils and sticks to my tongue.

Pukh, I'm told, is one of Stalin's more enduring legacies. It all dates back to 1934 when the great dictator ordered the greening of Moscow. It seems he was depressed by the hideous concrete jungle he'd had created all around him.

Sex lives

The answer - plant poplar trees ... hundreds and thousands of them ... everywhere.

[ image: Stalin planted the wrong type of trees]
Stalin planted the wrong type of trees
Nobody dared tell him that poplars have sex lives - that every female needs a male. Plant too many females and the males can't fertilise them. Which is exactly what happened. Moscow has an enormous surfeit of sexually frustrated female poplars, which every June release a thick stream of unfertilised seeds into the atmosphere - in a word, pukh.

Running mascara

There's nothing like a hot June for getting the poplars on heat - and this one has been a scorcher, with temperatures scaling 95 degrees.

Sweating workers become coated in a fluffy white film as they toil at the roadsides, office assistants sunbathing in their lunchbreaks find pukh sticking to their running mascara.

But it can be more than just a nuisance. Thousands of Muscovites are allergic to the pollen - eyelids blister, noses run, faces swell and sales of antihistamines soar.

Among the more famous to have been affected is Bill Clinton - who suffers from a variety of allergies. When he arrived in Moscow for the 50th anniversary of the end of the second world war the pukh came early.

As he stood on the platform to deliver his speech, the usually vigorous US President appeared drowsy and off colour - but Muscovities understood. As he spoke, clusters of pukh wafted past his nose.

White fluff

Asthma sufferers have a particularly tough time. At the end of May and the beginning of June - the peak of the pukh season - they stream to the city's hospitals - many of them pleading to be locked in specially sealed rooms - anywhere to escape the apparently infinite reach of the white fluff.

Pukh can also be a fire hazard - when dry, the pollen becomes crisp and highly inflammable. It gathers in the corners of the city's courtyards, clogs the wiring of lift shafts and jams the traffic-lights.

Yevgeny Volibyev, chief spokesman for the Moscow fire department, says firemen have to be on special alert throughout the season.

All it takes is a stray cigarette to set off a flash fire. The pukh ignites, a breeze blows and within an instant there is a carpet of flame. Yevgeny himself witnessed a fire spread out of control at a petrol station when some pukh caught alight.

But it's not all bad - if you're not allergic to the poplar's spores, a blizzard of pukh at sunset can be an extraordinarily beautiful sight. And there are even those who have found a use for it. A group of Moscow artists have investigated its commercial potential and are encouraged. It makes a shimmering thread that catches the light and changes colour.

But its end may soon be in sight. Moscow's mayor, Yury Luzhkov, is not a fan. He's given the order for a replacement to be found and changes are already underway.

Rowan trees, maples and lime trees - all of them blessedly pukh-free, have begun to replace the poplar. But it's going to take time. At the last count, there were 400,000 poplars in Moscow, most of them female - and nobody wants to cut them down. The pukh may be a nuisance but the trees are attractive and conceal a multitude of sores.

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