Balsam for Beginners
There are aliens amongst us. There are 36 species of concern in the UK, invasive plants and animals that have been introduced to our countryside that have no natural controls and spread without mercy. Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) is an invasive species, and it is this species BCV spend hundreds of volunteer hours each summer trying to control.
The many names of balsam: Indian Balsam, Nuns, Jumping Jacks, Bobby Tops, Copper Tops, Gnome’s Hat Stand, Jewelweed, Ornamental Jewelweed, Policeman’s Helmet, Kiss-me-on-the-Mountain
Balsam was introduced to the UK in 1839 from the the foothills of the Himalayas, mainly northern India, Pakistan and Nepal, by Victorian botanists and collectors of exotic plants. But their pretty pink flowers would soon be seen outside of private collections as they began their colonisation of riverbanks and wetlands. Without the natural biological controls found in their native habitats balsam soon spread, and in the last 50 years especially it has become a menace to conservationists across the country.
Himalayan balsam can dominate habitats, its canopy blocks out light, restricting the growth of native flora. Pollinators are attracted to balsam blossom in preference to other flowers, this reduces the species diversity of plants and the vertebrates and invertebrates that would use them by affecting local ecosystems and food webs. It alters soil conditions, as being shallow rooted once the balsam dies back there’s less soil binding, increasing the risk of erosion and the siltation of watercourses. It blocks access to paths and waterways, costing time and money to clear it from affected areas.
Being an enemy of the people it has some heavy legal controls to make it think about its behaviour, here’s a few things taken from various government and local government websites.
Because of negative impacts on the UK environment and economy, Himalayan balsam is listed as a species of special concern under retained European Union (EU) law. This means it is an offence to plant or cause these plants to grow in the wild, or intentionally release them into the environment. Schedule 4 of the Invasive Alien Species (Enforcement and Permitting) Order 2019 removes plants listed under the EU IAS Regulation from Schedule 9 of The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, although the same offence applies. Also, Himalayan balsam plant material (including soil contaminated with seeds) is a ‘controlled waste’ under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 which means it can only be transported by a registered waste carrier to suitably permitted or exempt sites. Transfer notes shall be kept for each load for a minimum of 2 years.
Breaking the rules can result in a fine, a 3 month prison sentence, or a good telling off and your promise to tidy up not to do it again. But balsam has a good lawyer so there are exemptions:
Landowners do not have to remove listed plants growing wild from their land. However, they must not intentionally grow, cultivate or allow to reproduce wild listed plants. If a listed species is already growing on your land, including parks, estates open to the public or private gardens, or in ponds, lakes, waterways on your land, either private or open to the public, the species is not considered to be intentionally kept or cultivated. So you’re not committing an offence because you’re not intentionally keeping or cultivating it.
If you want to grow balsam or any invasive species as part of a collection or for commercial purposes you will need a permit.
Balsam for Bashers
So, what can you do to stop the spread? Can you bash it? Yes you can. Every summer between May and early August conservationists across the UK take part in the activity known as balsam bashing. This is preferably done before the seed pods appear and always with the landowners permission if on private land.
Balsam can be controlled in a number of ways: it can be sprayed with herbicide, which isn’t the preferred option of environmentalists; it can be introduced to grazing animals, but there’s only so much they can eat. There is also ongoing research into the use of fungal rusts that can take down vast areas of balsam but that’s outside of the average bashers means. So, the methods most commonly used are cutting and pulling.
Balsam can be cut with a mechanical strimmer or brush cutter, or with hand operated weed whackers. This method is great for clearing large areas of balsam but does leave an unsightly mess of cut balsam on the ground. Also, to be most effective the cut needs to made between the root and the first node, the first bulge on the stem above the root. Balsam can re-shoot if the stem is cut too high so accurate bashing is essential.
Hand pulling takes longer and works well on smaller areas. Just hold the stem and gently pull the roots out of the ground, then you can either snap the roof off, again below the first node, or crush it mercilessly in a neat pile. Not severing the root and just throwing it back on the ground undamaged can result in the balsam re-rooting and it can continue growing albeit in a bit of a twisted shape.
If the balsam has seed pods then any kind of bashing will release the seeds and give you more work for next year. Seed pods have an explosive method of distribution. As the two halves of the pod mature there’s an increase in tension, at this point even a gentle touch with a finger tip can cause them to twist open, firing seeds for several metres in every direction. Putting a bag over the seed head before pulling will catch the seeds, but is a bit time consuming, so it’s best to do all your bashing long before this stage. What you do with the seeds you catch in the bag is a problem as they would be classed as hazardous waste, keeping them on site is probably the best option. Bashing the same area over five years or so will eventually exhaust the seed bank leaving it balsam free. BCV have had success with this at several locations.
Balsam for Boiling
Some people argue that balsam benefits bees and pollinators, which is true, but there is a cost to other native species as noted previously. However, there is one benefit balsam has that other invasives generally don’t- it is edible. As long as the balsam hasn’t been sprayed with herbicide it can be eaten: its seeds can be used in curries, the leaves can be used in salad, soups and stews, the flowers can be used in gin, smoothies, jelly, ice cream, jam, crackers, and champagne. An extract of balsam is even used as a homeopathic treatment for anxiety. The leaves taste a bit bitter and the flowers don’t taste of very much, the stems are best left alone, but whatever floats your boat, however caution is needed so see the box below. Also, collecting the balsam does raise the problem of transporting invasive plant material to another site, a bit more thought might be needed on that score.
Himalayan Balsam is very rich in minerals, so shouldn’t really be eaten in large quantities. It also contains calcium oxalate, which can be harmful, cooking thoroughly should break this down. People with arthritis, kidney or bladder stones, gout, hyperacidity and rheumatism should avoid eating balsam completely.
So there you go, brief guide to balsam and how to bash it, the rest is up to you.
Gov.uk – Invasive non-native (alien) plant species rules in England and Wales
Jones D (2022) Public information on invasive species in Wales: Himalayan balsam. Welsh Government.
Royal Horticultural Society