Hogweed, borscht and the food of people and bears

1st July 2020

Hogweed Heracleum is a common perennial of fertile meadows, roadsides and gardens. Its range encompasses Eurasia and North America. In Europe the commonest native species is common hogweed Heracleum sphondylium. Hogweed is a forgotten vegetable, once very important for the Slavs. Various species of hogweed are also used as food in North America, Russia,t he Cacasus and China (e.g. Hedrick 1919; Maurizo 1926, 1927; Hu 2005; Moerman 1998, etc.). The English name of the dish borscht (and similar names of the dish in Slavic languages, e.g. the Polish barszcz, and Russian borshch comes from the plant itself. A wider monograph of its use in Poland was written by Professor Rostafiński (1916) and the majority of information about it in this chapter comes from that work. The use of fermented leaves and stalks of hogweed in Poland, Russia and Lithuania was also mentioned in the famous English Herbal by Gerarde in 1597. He wrote:

“The people of Polonia and Lithuania use to make drinke with the decoction of this herbe and leuen or some other thing made of meal, which is used in stead of beere and other ordinary drinke”.

Of course it also appear in Polish herbals. And here is what Marcin from Urzędów wrote in his Polish Herbal from 1595:

“When hogweed is fermented in the Polish way, it is good to drink in fevers, thirsts, since it alleviates thirst and cholera, and greed for food is awakened by seasoning with it. (…) Seasoned with eggs and with butter and eggs it is good to eat on those days when the meat soup is not eaten, because it can be used as a meat soup”.

While Szymon Syreński in his Herbal from 1613 writes:

“Our hogweed is known to all of us, in Russia, in Lithuania, in Żmudź [i.e. Samogitia – a region of Lithuania] (…) It is very tasty as medicine and for the table. Both root and leaves. Although the root is only used for medicine, and the leaves for dishes. (…) The leaves are commonly gathered in May. (…) hogweed soup is tasty and good as it is made in our country, Russia and Lithuania. It is made either alone or with capons, or with other seasonings, like with eggs, cream, millets”.

Chopped stems, leaves and inflorescences were thrown into barrels or other containers with water poured over them. After a certain time they were fermented. Fermented hogweed could contain small amounts of alcohol. It was, then, something between beer and pickled cabbage. The fermentation of hogweed happens quickly. In a warm place by the stove, it becomes pleasantly sour in two days, and after a few days it smells stronger than pickled cabbage (pers. observations).

As previously mentioned, the seventeenth century sources consistently relate that  hogweed was in common use and was one of the main soups. It was also an ingredient of the menu of the professors of the oldest university in Poland, Jagiellonian University in Kraków: “Throughout the whole of Lent on Wednesdays hogweed was served as a soup, with peppered fish, vegetables and carp, and on the first day of Easter first beef clods with eggs, then hogweed, pork, capons with honey cakes, peas and lamb”. (Karbowiak 1900). King Władysław Jagiellończyk (who reigned both Poland and Hungary), when he visited the Hungarian capital missed the hogweed greens and ordered for it to be prepared (Rostafiński 1916).

A sparse account of the species in Priest Kluk’s Dykcyonarz roślinny (i.e. Plant Dictionary) bears witness to the fact that the use of hogweed got rare in the eighteenth century. However, Priest Ładowski in The History of the Natural Kingdom of Poland in 1783 writes: ”Soup is simply made, that they call borsch”. And Jundziłł in his Applied Botany from 1799 relates that hogweed “in our country in Lithuania only and in some other northern countries is used for food. The young leaves are collected, pickled usually with other vegetables of ours, and are often a peasant food. Or dried in the shade, in the shape of celery, kept for future use”.

Gerald Wyżycki also writes of hogweed in his Herbal, published in Vilnius (1845): “Our peasants collect leaves in spring, pickle them and boil a tasty dish out of them called borsch, it substitutes for pickled cabbage very well”.

At the end of the  nineteenth century borsch from hogweed was still a popular dish in the Polesie region, particularly in the former Pińsk area, now in Belarus (Secieszyn near Klecko, Rawonicze, Kuchcice, Kozmiatyna), and also in Nowogródek. A few letters in response to Rostafiński’s survey bear witness to this. A few pieces of information also exist on the consumption of hogweed soup  within the present borders of our country up until the mid XX century – in Łapsze in Spisz (Doliński 1982), in the area of Bielsko-Biała (Łuczaj & Szymański 2007), in northern  Podlasie (Pirożnikow 2008b, 2010). This soup was also known from the  nineteenth century in the north of the country, in the area of Kościerzyna I northern Poland (Łuczaj & Köhler 2012). The use of hogweed soup was also recorded in what is now western Belarus, east from the Białowieża forest in the area of Słonim, Wołkowysk and Prużanna. There it was called borszcz (in English spelling borshch), the same as the sour soup made from it (Graniszewska et al. 2013).

What is interesting that in some languages hogweed is associated with bears (see e.g. Latin names ursi branca). Further below I will quote (slightly modified) information from a passage which I wrote in our collective article about names of plants associated with bears The bear in Eurasian plant names: motivations and models led by a prominent Russian linguist Valeria Kolosova (Kolosova et al. 2017). Bears are typically omnivorous animals, their diet includes succulent shoots and leaves, fruits, insects, and meat (Bojarska and Selva 2011). Omnivory of the bear gave it in many cultures the attribute of medicine animal, knowing all the plants and foods in general. As bears were often believed to have supernatural powers (due to their size and long hibernation period) people observed with great attention bear’s way and the way they foraged. We can thus assume that a large proportion of bear names in plants referred to their diet. The literature on bear ecology gave us dozens of bear food plants, and some of them had bear-related names in some languages. The main example of such plants is hogweed (the genus Heracleum) reported as one of the mainspring foods of the bear from many countries, e.g. the USA, China, Japan, and Poland (e.g. Atwell et al. 1980, Hewitt and Robin 1996, McLellan BN, Hovey  1995; Schaller et al. 1996; Tomasz Kozica – pers. comm.). Also “bear’s garlic”, Allium ursinum, was reported as important bear food in Croatia (Kusak and Huber 1998). There was also an evidence from Mr. Sándor Tímár (Eastern Carpathians) of bears eating ramsons Allium ursinum and victory garlic A. victorialis (Hung. vadfokhagyma, wild garlic), though the plant was not named after bear in this area: “The bear does not eat anything during winter, he licks his paws, and licks so much that by spring they are white. And then he eats first from that plant (wild garlic), in order to clean his stomach from the “deposits”. He is such a clever animal. He searches for what he has to eat after the winter sleep” (Kolosova et al. 2017).

Bears eat a large diversity of wild fruits so it is not surprising that some of them got the names of bear berries, though it is probably impossible to say if it was because they were main fruits eaten by bears or rather those fruits which are less eaten by humans, left for the bears, like Arctostaphylos uvaursi. Bears have also been observed using plants for self- medication, so some of the plants which are not typical bear food or do not resemble bears in any way may have acquired their names from incidents of humans observing a bear using this plant as medicine. This was the case with Ligusticum porteri which was observed as being sought after by bears and was regarded as bear medicine by Native Americans (Sigstedt 2013). It is possible to assume that some plants – their fruits, stalks or rhizomes – were eaten by bears, though dialect dictionaries seldom give explanations, and we do not always know the folk ideas behind this or that nomination.”

The literature cited above makes me think that bears could become an inspiration (and probably have been such inspiration in the past!) for humans searching for food in the woods and woodland clearings. What is also hopeful is that such a large “carnivorous” animal can sustain itself for weeks only on vegan food. Please note, however, that the more north you go, the less vegan the bears are.


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  • Reply Patria Janise 26th March 2020 at 3:51 pm

    The website is one of the best we have found, and the Hogweed,
    borscht and the food of people and bears article is very well written and useful!

    I want to share with you a link that also helped
    me a lot in cooking:
    Thanks and kisses! 🙂

  • Reply Krol 3rd December 2022 at 8:13 pm

    Hi, interesting article, I was looking for old eastern recipes using hogweed. In my language, Dutch, hogweed translates as ‘the claw of the bear’: this strange name is often explained, not because bears ate this plant, but because if the plant scratches you, the effect is that of a bear clawing at you: if you walkin the sun with the wound, you will get burnt (photosensitive plant sap)…

    • Reply Lukasz Luczaj 22nd December 2022 at 4:57 pm

      Actually there is scientific data that bears like the plant so I ll stick to it.

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