Thursday, 21 February 2013

Fatal Flowers?


A sudden outburst of flowers in the sunshine is telling me that spring is on the way, especially the cheeky dandelions flowering earlier than usual. Just look at that seed head ready to invade the garden, and it’s only mid-February.

Now there’s one flower which will be soon be making an appearance and from what I heard at a recent meeting on the theme of ‘Environmental Aspects of the River Otter’, organised by the Otter Valley Association it’s even more cheeky and persistent than dandelions. For wildlife trusts it’s actually one of the most worrying sights anywhere in the countryside.

Just imagine some scientist telling us that cancer spores could be cleared up as easily as litter from our streets and hedgerows in order to totally eradicate that horrible disease. Think of the national effort that would be made as everyone scoured streets and pavements, our woods, fields and river-banks. From the tiniest toddler to the most wrinkled granny we’d all be out there on hands and knees if necessary making sure that not one speck or molecule remained.  Within a day or so cancer would be a thing of the past.

 Environmental experts: (L-r) Haylor Lass, Roland Stonex, Scott West, Jim Hunter, John Wilding and Iorworth Watkins at the Otter Valley Association meeting in St Peter’s Church, Budleigh Salterton

Well, on Saturday 16 February I learnt from Roland Stonex, one of four speakers at the event, about the Otter Valley Himalayan Balsam Project 2012 and about the flower that he says is becoming a national plague.


Homily with a Himalayan theme: Roland Stonex explains what he sees as the menace of Himalayan balsam

Roland works for FWAG SW (Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group), a charity set up in the 1960s by farmers to promote the environmental dimension of farming. FWAG SW has over 2,000 farmer members in an area stretching from Cornwall to Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. In 2012, working with the Environment Agency, Roland has been leading the project tackling the ever-more-serious problem of the Himalayan Balsam in the Otter Valley.



A baneful beauty? The flower of Himalayan balsam

Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera), according to many experts, is as deadly as cancer as far as our fragile wildflower ecology is concerned.  It has the ability to grow in low levels of light  and is able to shade out other vegetation, so gradually impoverishing habitats by killing off other plants. As an annual, Himalayan balsam dies back in the winter. That’s when its damage to river banks can best be observed as the plant leaves them bare of vegetation and liable to erosion.  

This photo of the Jacobean mansion Bank Hall in Bretherton, Lancashire illustrates the invasive power of Himalayan balsam      Photo credit: J. Howard

The plant was apparently introduced into Britain around 1839 along with Giant Hogweed and Japanese Knotweed, much to the pleasure of ordinary gardening enthusiasts who found them an agreeable alternative to the expensive orchids grown in the greenhouses of the rich. Within ten years, however, Himalayan balsam had escaped from the confines of cultivation and begun to spread along the river systems of England. Its flowers are beautiful but then so are cancer spores when looked at under the microscope.


Bluebells under threat           
Image credit: Ramin Nakisa

It’s not just river-banks that it frequents. There is evidence that the plants are invading our woodlands, with seeds carried along favourite footpaths by walkers’ feet and even spread by the tyres of tractors. Those much-loved vistas of bluebells could become a distant memory.

Now not everyone hates Himalayan balsam. A Peter Herring who has contributed a fine photo of the flowers to Flikr tells us that it is “one of my favourite plants, but hated by conservationists who organise balsam bashing jollies.” 

The plant, he writes, is an annual and so is not permanent. “Its seeds float down river and so will colonise slow moving waterways, but they cannot flow upstream so why the paranoia? Great fun can be had by touching the ripe seed pods. They explode sending seed shrapnel over a wide area. The seed strikes other pods and they explode in turn setting up a chain reaction.”

That does sound as much fun as the tradition enjoyed by children of all ages blowing dandelion seeds into the wind.

I don’t know where Peter Herring lives, but nearer home the wild food enthusiasts Chris Holland and Robin Harford who have organised many weed gathering expeditions along the Otter’s river banks praise Himalayan balsam. Robin tells us that the plant has been eaten in India for hundreds of years and gives Chris’s recipe for Himalayan Balsam Seed Curry at

Chris’s own website is at

Bob Wiltshire of the Otter Valley Association was standing at the door of St Peter’s Church as we left the meeting and my friend Annie and I were quickly recruited as balsam bashers. Well, pulling up a few thousand of these blighters by the roots would be an easy job and it might be worth a day’s jolly or two just to see if our efforts resulted in the revival of some equally beautiful but more fragile wild flowers in their place. I might even take some stems home to try out that curry, to which I’m rather partial.

1 comment:

  1. Some control of Himalayan balsam is necessary but please don't forget that it is fantastic for honey bees. It has a very high nectar content and flowers late when many other plants have finished. This late foraging makes excellent honey and helps to take the bees through the winter. If you want to help save the bees don't destroy all the balsam. Bracken is far worse - and it's carcinogenic.