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Moscow ‘Pookh’ Intrudes on Everything

Times Staff Writer

Pookh began falling Wednesday like a gentle summer snow, and by nightfall it had left its mark in every corner of Moscow.

Pookh, which is the Russian name for the downy substance produced by the female cottonwood tree, gets into one’s nose, ears, eyes, mouth and hair, as well as into nearly every home and office.

It covers sidewalks and fills gutters, turns up in the food on restaurant tables and makes people sneeze. It takes a particular toll on people with allergies.

Pookh is as inflammable as flash powder. Children delight in touching a match to a pile of it and watching it flare up and disappear in an instant.

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A middle-aged Muscovite recalls that a van at his school blew up when sizzling pookh came into contact with gasoline that had leaked onto the pavement. To avoid this sort of thing, the police do their best to discourage children from playing with pookh and matches.

Moscow’s street sweepers try to dispose of pookh, but it is a losing battle. The only effective antidote appears to be a strong rain, which mats the fluff so it can be gathered and disposed of.

The city has roughly 100,000 cottonwood trees, and they produce a lot of pookh and a lot of trouble. Car owners complain that the stuff clogs radiators, causing engines to overheat. It passes right through home window screens, and it clings to clothing.

Some Muscovites attribute the pookh problem to Josef Stalin, the late dictator. They say he bought the city’s first cottonwoods, at the suggestion of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as fast-growing shade trees.

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The trees are said to to be effective in absorbing air pollutants, but they have not been planted by Moscow city officials since 1972.

One Moscow man says the pookh phenomenon represents “sheer incompetence” on the part of city officials. He points out that they could just as easily have planted male cottonwoods.

People here are resigned to having to cope with pookh every year. As a kerchief-covered grandmother observed: “Pookh will be here until it’s gone.”


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