Himalayan Balsam is a common weed familiar to everybody. It is vehemently hated by some and actively persecuted by others. However, it does have some redeeming features and whilst I can understand the reasons for it being much despised I feel somebody has to speak up in support of this controversial but defenceless and, even though invidious of me to say it, invaluable plant!
Himalayan Balsam Flower
Appearing every year in the late summer it grows in great swathes in damp areas covering large expanses of river banks, canal sides, railway embankments, and ditches with its tall gangly, largely leafless, hollow, and fragile stem. It doesn’t mind being in the shade or in direct sunlight and its musty dingy smell that unpleasantly hangs around it is instantly recognisable.
It’s not an indigenous species, it is an introduced plant that first came to England around 1839 when it was grown in greenhouses for its flower, but it escaped into the wild and is now naturalised and is present in most areas of the British Isles. It has an almost virulent reproductive capacity, doesn’t really suffer from any diseases, or have any natural predators and because it grows so rapidly it is highly invasive and easily out-competes our natural vegetation. Somebody has worked out that is spreads at an amazing 700 km² per year!
But (apart from the smell) why is it so hated?
It is said, that where it is present it lowers the overall biodiversity by up to 25%. The actual reasons are complex but simply;
• because it tends to grow in tall thick monoculture stands it not only shades lower growing native plants but is better at attracting pollinators and therefore produces more seeds whilst the lower growing plants tend to be less productive.
• it dies right down in the winter and since it has a shallow root system it leaves large bare areas which are sensitive to erosion particularly in steeply sloping areas and along river banks.
• it has an aggressive seed dispersal mechanism. In the autumn seeds explode from the ripe seedpods to extend their present standing or to be transported by water or carried in mud by animals and man to new areas.
• it has few, if any, natural enemies leaving it with an unfair advantage over native species. (A biological control programme is currently trying to identify an insect or plant pathogen that exclusively attacks Himalayan balsam to be released into the UK to control the plant without impacting any of our indigenous species.)
Such a concern is the spread of this plant that every year armies of concerned environmentalists take matters in their own hands; organised into manic working parties they wage a ferocious war on the helpless Balsam thrashing it down with sticks and machetes. For most part, it’s done in vain as the Balsam will return with renewed vigour the following year and there are some that even believe that this ‘Balsam bashing’ is counter-productive as it leaves the Balsam decimated areas susceptible to the invasion of even more damaging plants.
So who cares that its Latin name is Impatiens glandulifera, that it is the tallest flowering annual plant in the UK, that it is also known as Policeman’s Helmet, Jumping Jacks, Indian Balsam, Nuns, Bee-Bums and Poor Man’s Orchid, that you can even find recipes that use its boiled stem and seeds, that the sap can be used to sooth various rashes, that the plant can be used to make a yellow dye, or that is related to the ubiquitous Busy Lizzie? Not me, because it has much more appealing properties.
It is an annual herb that germinates from seed in February and March and dies back in the winter. It’s not an attractive plant; it has a tall, can be up to 2m, feeble reddish succulent stem with scant green lance-shaped leaves with serrated edges which are arranged in pairs at each growing node. But the reality is, that in the late summer, it has at the top of its tall stem large and attractive flowers that look a bit (or to the un-trained non-botanist eyes lime mine, a lot) like orchids whose colour can range, even within the same stand, from a very pale gentle pink to a luscious purple.
As its long-lasting pretty flowers die away they give rise to bunches of grenade like seedpods. When ripe these violently explode when touched or shaken. In fact, when they are very ripe they barely need to be touched, the proximity of a finger or any slight disturbance is enough to detonate them causing the five segments of the seedpod to split along their length, curl up and twist explosively, hurling the little round black seeds up to 7m from the parent plant. As each plant can produce around a thousand seeds it gives a dramatic demonstration as to why it is so evolutionary successful.
Ripe Himalayan Balsam seedpods
However, the plant’s greatest asset by far is that it produces copious amounts of both nectar and pollen and as a consequence, it is very very popular with insects. At times its flowers are awash with a huge array of insects busily flitting around as they indulge themselves in the abundance of its sweet sticky goodness. Varieties of moths, butterflies, hoverflies, and in particular many species of bees can all be found at this natural ‘Super store’, and of the many species of bees that partake there is one species of especial interest to me: the Honey Bee.
As a beekeeper myself, the sight of Himalayan Balsam brings joy to the heart, it is a glory to behold! Apart from watching the bees working on the plant itself, it’s obvious when they come back to the hive where they have been. Not only are their pollen sacks full of off-whitish pollen but the bees themselves arrive back at the hive covered in the white Balsam pollen. They look like they’ve been dusted with a coating of icing sugar; almost like little white fairies with a very typical dense stripe of pollen along the top of their thorax and abdomen. This is because as the bees enter the Balsam flower trumpet, they brush past a hair trigger which causes the stamen to snap down, and as the bee moves back and forth inside the flower pollen is deposited along their backs.
Since Himalayan Balsam flowers last until really late in the flowering year (as I write this in late October the last few Balsam flowers still have Honey Bees visiting them) it provides a late season crop and the bees that forage on it can do so at lower temperatures and until much later in the year than in areas where it is not present. Not only does this extend the time for honey production but it enables the bees to make up for any lost days due to poor weather or poor nectar/pollen production in other plants. Apart from providing an abundant source of nectar for honey for beekeepers to harvest it is also a vital source of late season forage for the bees themselves to use as provision for the winter without which many could easily starve. (Most colonies that don’t survive the winter usually starve rather than freeze to death!)
The plentiful honey that the bees convert from Himalayan Balsam nectar is a pretty light amber in colour and its mild but sweet taste is similar to that of Acacia honey: it has a fairly thick consistency and unlike some other honeys it doesn’t have a tendency to crystallize, remaining runny for a long time.
Himalayan Balsam honey
Some bee keepers say that honey from bees that have foraged almost exclusively on Himalayan Balsam is not as tasty as honey produced from bees that have had access to a greater variety of flowers. I actually agree with this, as in years when there is less Himalayan Balsam foraging I would say the honey is tastier to me, but its mild and distinctive taste is delicious and satisfying and is great just eaten straight from the jar. Having said that, however, it is a perfect accompaniment to muesli, ice cream and yoghurt, and increases the flavour of a wide-ranging selection of meals especially stir-fries and curries.
With the decline of the Honey Bee being a headlining news item, do we really want to get rid of Himalayan Balsam and risk an even further decline of the Honey Bee? The answer has to be NO. I agree that it could be controlled in some areas but it should never be eradicated, and whilst I enjoy seeing it in great swathes (where I live on the edge of the Peak District on the borders of Greater Manchester and Derbyshire there is an abundance of it), I do understand and sympathise with some of the environmentalist’s concerns and even though Himalayan Balsam is not a notifiable or injurious weed I wouldn’t really want to see it growing everywhere. Despite it being a temptation to take some of the seeds to encourage its growth nearer to hives this is not only unacceptable but it is actually illegal to actively distribute its seeds for this purpose. It’s also not acceptable to dispose of Himalayan Balsam for recycling in council-provided green waste wheelie bins, or in fact to take it to tips as this constitutes a risk of spreading it even further. It can only be disposed of as controlled waste as defined by the council Environmental Health Services.
So, in summary, long live Himalayan Balsam with all the insects and particularly the Honey Bee it supports, and as this year’s Balsam plants die away and the Honey Bees prepare themselves for winter I look forward to next year and another bumper honey crop – even if the summer is as bad as it has in recent years for honey! In fact, as I finish writing this eulogy to the much-maligned Himalayan Balsam I feel a bit of a head cold coming on. Better get off and make a nice hot honey and lemon drink; with my own Himalayan Balsam honey – delicious and better than any Lemsip!
Honey Bees with characteristic white stripe of pollen
Honey Bee foraging on Himalayan Balsam
British Beekeepers Association: Statement on Himalayan Balsam
Peak District National Park Authority: Himalayan Balsam information leaflet
Environment Agency: Managing invasive non native plants
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA): Himalayan Balsam fact sheet
CABI: Biological control of Himalayan balsam