Moscow Adrift in 'Summer Snow'

Each June, fluff from 350,000 poplar trees swirls down on the city.

After the long dark months of winter, Muscovites rightly feel they deserve relief from nature's extremes. But the spring "snows" that fall in June are far worse for many city dwellers than any arctic storm.

This is the month of the dreaded pukh.

Each June this already dirty metropolis endures a blizzard of fluff falling from the city's 350,000 poplar trees. These feathery annoyances swirl through the air like some evil creations of a bad science-fiction movie.

Muscovites, who have to deal with some of the world's worst air pollution year round, now have to contend with pukh. Beware of yawning too widely. Don't breathe too deeply. Close your shutters tightly. Pukh flies into open mouths. Forget about wearing anything but white clothes; pukh looks terrible clinging to dark suits. And don't contemplate eating ice-cream outdoors. The sneaky pukh will get you when you least expect it.

This annual deluge usually last just a few weeks - but for many that is too long.

"Kasmar" (nightmare) is the refrain one hears from irritated Muscovites swatting the fluff off their faces, shirts, and babies.

This spring has been particularly hot and dry, making worse than usual Moscow's version of a biblical plague. The hotter it is, the more pukh blossoms drop from the trees.

The inches-deep blankets of pukh on the streets are also a fire hazard, according to city authorities, who brace each year for the annual June pukh fires.

The history of the pukh season begins in 1954, when many large apartment blocks were built in Moscow. Residents who wanted to beautify their concrete surroundings planted the attractive-looking poplars to add some green.

In many ways, experts say, poplars are ideal for a metropolis like Moscow. The trees grow quickly, generate oxygen, and are resistant to pollution.

But the residents' mistake was to plant female poplars, which produce the vexing fluff. And they planted too many. According to the government plan, the poplar was to account for at most 6 percent of total city trees, not the total 60 percent today.

"Specialists informed them that they should consult experts first," says Vladimir Mashirsky at the city hall office that takes care of Moscow's trees. "But they didn't, and now it's gotten out of control."

These days city officials are planting few poplars, and only males. But they are stopping short of cutting down the old females.

In the meantime, Muscovites stoically wait out the tide. Some don thick sunglasses and scarves. Still others remain indoors as much as possible or whisk the family away to dachas (country cottages).

"Because Moscow is so big, things always happen on a more grandiose scale. So of course the pukh problem would be worse than in other cities," says Mr. Mashirsky philosophically.

"The thing to do is just survive these 2-1/2 weeks and enjoy the rest of the year."

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