Maja and Reuben Fowkes
Heracles of Hogweed: Plant Invader or Guest Species?
The divisive politics of populist governments that have come to power in Europe and across the world in the last decade is charged with xenophobic sentiments of hostility toward foreign influence and heightened fear of migrants. Their nationalist and anti-globalist agenda is also transposed onto zoological and botanical realms, where plants with different geographic histories are vilified and labelled as non-native or invasive and subject to public campaigns of eradication, with media coverage further fuelling the atmosphere of intolerance. The myth of native purity has been corroded, however, by climate disruption bringing in its wake the unstoppable resettlement of species across the planet. Ecological crisis has sharpened the critique of Invasion Biology as a subdiscipline with a guiding assumption that foreign species pose a vital threat to the native flora and fauna of local ecosystems, disclosing it as unwittingly echoing populist rhetoric and misconstruing scientific evidence. Intervening in the entangled domains of politics, science, and ecology, artists have challenged the demonization of so-called invasive species, uncovered complex histories of their redistribution and engendered collaborative scenarios in which the agency of non-native pioneers is released to restore and revivify devastated post-industrial environments.
A new wave of environmental thinking, which goes to the lengths of proposing the term “guest species” to denote those beneficial “non-native species that we welcome into our ecosystem,” has acknowledged the integral role of newcomer plants in the dynamic response of the natural world to intensifying ecological crisis. Advocates of the “new wild” see signs of natural resilience in the “strength and colonizing abilities of alien species,” who often become in effect, “the new natives,” in novel ecosystems that combine introduced and indigenous varieties. The emphasis that Invasion Biology placed on deliberate or accidental “human assistance” in introducing non-native species to new environments has given way to greater recognition of plant agency in migration. Ecologist Chris D. Thomas has correspondingly observed that in response to climate disruption, “around two-thirds of the species that researchers have studied in recent decades have shifted their distribution,” to become “commoner in those places where the climate has ‘improved’ for them.” He goes on to predict that “in the long run, it is the species that keep moving and successfully exploit new environments that will survive and prosper and thus ensure the survival of their kin on planet Earth.” Anthropogenic alterations to habitats and climate chaos therefore necessitate the pragmatic embrace of novel assemblages of human and non-human entities to accommodate new forms of coexistence.
Adam Vačkař’s film Giant Hogweed (2022) tests emotive responses to a pioneering plant, whose spread westwards from Central Asia and the Caucasus was entwined from the beginning with histories of colonial collecting. Like many vegetal migrants that are today denigrated as non-native invasives, the giant hogweed journeyed from exotic lands to the colonial hothouse of Kew in London in the early nineteenth century, before escaping from ornamental gardens to flourish along uncultivated riverbanks. This five metre tall giant of the genus Heracleum, which was named by Enlightenment botanist Carl Linnaeus after the bravest of ancient Greek heroes, has kept its serendipitous association with strength and steadfastness. According to the Royal Horticultural Society, the plant, which is also known by the derogatory moniker ‘The Hog’, is today ‘widely distributed in the wild and poses a serious risk to people who are unaware of its potential for harm.’ Fear of the giant hogweed, the sap of which is phototoxic and can cause blisters when contaminated skin is exposed to sunlight, is dramatized in Vačkař’s film with scenes of eradication teams in full-body PPE scything and decapitating the unwelcome invader. However, another point of view is suggested by night-time footage that gently illuminates its capacious leaves, thick stalks and glorious heads, the eery, sylvan ambiance of which is heightened by the unsettling score of composer Natálie Pleváková. An alternative modus operandi to the objectifying, scientific-technical gaze, which since Linnaeus has named, confined, exploited and despised newcomer plants, is also hinted at in the closing sequences of the film. A bare hand reaches out to lovingly stroke the leaves of the giant hero hogweed, daring the viewer to imagine a different relation to plants based on care, respect, coexistence and an acceptance of the obligation to atone for and repair the dislocation and destruction of the natural world in the Anthropocene era of colonial modernity.
 Adapted from Maja and Reuben Fowkes, ‘The Politics and Ecology of Invasive Species: A Changing Climate for Pioneering Plants,’ in T. J. Demos, Emily Eliza Scott, and Subhankar Banerjee, eds, Routledge Companion to Contemporary Art, Visual Culture, and Climate Change (New York: Routledge, 2020).
 Karrigan Börk, ‘Guest Species: Rethinking Our Approach to Biodiversity in the Anthropocene,’ Utah Law Review 1 (2018), 169.
 Fred Pearce, The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation (London: Icon Books, 2015), 2.
 Daniel Simberloff, Invasive Species: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 2–3.
 Chris D. Thomas, Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction (London: Penguin, 2018), 91.
 Ibid., 114.
 See also, Maja and Reuben Fowkes, ‘Facing the Unprotectable: Emergency Democracy for Post-Glacial Landscapes,’ in Barnaby Drabble, ed., Along Ecological Lines: Contemporary Art and Climate Crisis (Gaia Project: Manchester, 2019).
 Website of the Royal Horticultural Society, accessed at: https://www.rhs.org.uk/weeds/giant-hogweed