Giant Hogwort – Big Teacher

June 1st, 2017



My dream for summer 2016 was talking to wild plants and learning their names and magical/medicinal properties. The dream came true: I spent the summer in remote rural Sweden where an abundance of flowers awaited me.

People in-the-know say that the plant you most need unfailingly grows near you. If this is so, perhaps I only need to step outside (wherever I am) for a unique perspective on my health, my future or my marriage?!

I developed the habit of walking around with a magnifying glass in my hand and field guide in my pocket. I was soon moving in a fog of linguistic confusion. I grew up in The Netherlands. One of my earliest memories is of lying on my back in the grass and hearing plants singing all around me. In my early twenties I moved to Sweden and then on to the UK. Today the Dutch names of plants are like faint echoes carried on the wind: fluitekruid, pastinaak, bijvoet…. And my Swedish mother-in-law insisted that I learn the names of wild plants in Swedish: gråbo, vitsippor, blå eld….

My father did a course in horticulture when I was a teenager. He had to commit the Latin names of hundreds of plants to memory. Latin was one of my subjects in school and I would often look at those reams of names. It almost seemed like a different kind of Latin because surnames from other languages are ‘Latinized’ so botanical Latin looks very odd if you actually understand Latin!!

One thing my own parents taught me was to keep a respectful distance from certain plants. Giant Hogwort most of all. It is called Bereklauw (Bear’s Claw) in Dutch. They taught me that some plants have ‘lethal lookalikes’, mysterious ‘doppelgangers’ or doubles that are poisonous. Just as we human beings have a shadow, a side to us we try not to show, plants too have a secret life and sometimes they have poison twins.

As my maiden name is Berendsen (son or child of a bear) the ‘Bereklauw’ exterted a peculiar fascination. I am tall but this plant can grow twice as tall as me! Those white parasols of flowers were always swaying everywhere in the winds that scour my native Low Lands (literal translation of The Netherlands)

On my walks here in Sweden I suddenly thought: I do not actually know the name of Bear’s Claw in English. I have no difficulties recognising the plant but I can’t name it in English, Swedish or indeed Latin. I looked it up:

Giant Hogwood (Heracleum Mantegazzatium)

It is also called Giant Hogweed. I am not sure if that might be difference between British and American English, or if it is a more modern version of the same name. Use the link below to see pictures and read an official warning:

When I tried googling the English name I found an article written by a Dutch mother. Her two sons had played in the vicinity of Giant Hogwort and their skin had erupted in great blisters. Once those blisters pop, they leave open sores that need dressing and cleaning. She gave a vivid description of the horrors of tending to her boys daily. My mother’s heart did ache for this family. She then proceeded to say that these ‘nasty monsters’ grow even in the very heart of Amsterdam, in Het Vondelpark (Amsterdam’s equivalent of Hyde Park in London or Central Park in NYC). She discovered that you can contact the local council who are then obliged to remove the plants. And why were they growing there in the first place, she asked, in a prime location for children and dogs to run and play outdoors?


At that point my mother’s heart did a backflip and I thought: hang on…. We live in world where children aren’t taught the names of plants any more. I was told recently that cowslip has been removed from the dictionary to make space for cyber age words like broadband and wifi.

Could it be argued that one of our duties as parents and teachers is to teach children the names and properties of plants? That plants are not just decorative greenery on the fringes of our lives but powerful beings with magical properties. Beings we’d do well to cultivate a relationship with?

When my own three children were young (they are teenagers now) the shops were full of protective devices: electric socket covers, foamy u-shaped doughnuts that kept doors from slamming shut, padded corners to click on coffee tables etc.

And yes, toddlers need to be kept away from open fires and electric sockets! Children and pets definitely DO need safe spaces to run and play. But older children also need to learn about plants, their toxic doubles and their own shadow sooner rather than later!

The world has never been a safe place. We keep young people safe by teaching them how to recognise danger (in any form), not by removing all dangers.

And perhaps this is (or was) the teaching of the Giant Hogwort in Het Vondelpark?

Giant Hogwort – Big Teacher…

(Started at Kärrshagen, Sweden, Summer 2016 and finished in London, May 2017)


Imelda Almqvist

Imelda Almqvist teaches shamanism, sacred art and internationally. 

Her book “Natural Born Shamans: A Spiritual Toolkit For Life”, Using shamanism creatively with young people of all ages was published by Moon in August 2016.

Imelda is a presenter on Year of Ceremony with Sounds True

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