Himalayan Balsam: A Brief Guide for Bashers

Balsam for Beginners

a swathe of balsam
a swathe of balsam

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 flower
Balsam flower

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

bashing balsam
bashing balsam

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.

Roots and node
Roots and node

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.

Bash Street Kids
Bash Street Kids

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

A Royal Welcome

Duke of Edinburgh Award for BCV’s Nathan

Congratulations to one of our Bolton Conservation Volunteers, Nathan who originally joined us in 2016 as part of his volunteering task for the Duke of Edinburgh Bronze award. After completing all his tasks over the following three years he successfully completed his Gold Award in 2019. Because of the pandemic he was unable to celebrate his achievement, but last week he finally got to celebrate the award at Buckingham Palace attended by the HRH Prince Edward, the Duke of Edinburgh.

Great to see that the volunteering bug hasn’t left him and, 7 years on, he is still a regular member of the team on our Sunday tasks, happy to get stuck in (sometimes literally).

If you too are looking for somewhere to complete the new skill section or volunteering section of your Duke of Edinburgh Award, please come along to one of our tasks (see the relevant section on our website for more details).

Nathan in suit
Nathan in a suit
Nathan in mud
Nathan in the mud

Words and pictures by Katrina

Jumbles: Pond Restoration

Pond Restoration 21st May 2023

As well as a big reservoir Jumbles Country Park also has some smaller water bodies that are less well known. In May 2022 we began a restoration project, back then the ponds had become overgrown and shaded out by vegetation. The ponds were dredged to remove leaf litter and silt and oxygenating plants were introduced to the ponds. Brash and branches were cut back and used to create linear habitat piles, Himalayan balsam was pulled up or cut down.

On this visit the areas around the ponds had transformed from a lunar landscape to a carpet of flowers; the ponds themselves contained toad tadpoles. Today’s work involved uncovering a path, cutting back invasive vegetation, and planting marginal plants.. and a bit of pond dipping.

The ponds should attract frogs and toads as well as insects such as dragonflies. We will be coming back over the months to pull out more balsam. Thanks to everyone involved.

Doffcocker: Rafts and Reeds

Habitat Management Doffcocker Lodge LNR 23rd April 2023

Common Tern
Common Tern at Doffcocker Lodge

Tern Rafts – Doffcocker Lodge already has 3 rafts for common tern and today we completed and installed raft number 4. Common tern winter in West Africa before returning to Europe to breed. They usually nest on shingle beaches along the coast but disturbance by humans has forced these agile and elegant sea birds to look further in land for suitable habitat.

Tern rafts are floating wooden frames, surrounded by a fence and covered in cockleshells, they also have short pieces of terracotta pipe for shelter. The population at Doffcocker varies but in 2022 we had around 10 breeding pairs which successfully hatched several chicks.

The rafts were completed on the shore then floating out into position and secured in place with 4 concrete anchors. The grouping of 4 rafts will allow the terns to breed away from predators, as we were leaving the site 2 common tern arrived and landed on one of the rafts.

Phragmites Reedbed
Phragmites Reedbed

Reedbeds – Doffcocker Lodge is an old industrial lodge consisting of 2 water bodies divided by a causeway. The reedbeds at Doffcocker were planted around 30 years ago by BCV, at that time they were just a few square metres of rhizome planted in straw bales. The bed now covers the shoreline of the small lodge from one end of the causeway to the other part part of the larger lodge. Our reedbed work today involved finishing a line of dams in along the compartment in the main lodge to raise the water level locally, and also pushing back the tree line on the north side of the small lodge to the allow the reeds to spread further, a continuation of work we started last year.

Reedbeds can support around 700 species of invertebrates, amphibians, birds, mammals and fish.

Easter Task

Tree Planting at Moses Gate CP 9th April 2023

Easter – the time when we celebrate the invention of chocolate and the four day bank holiday. It’s also the time for the annual BCV Easter Egg Hunt and the traditional ‘losing’ of at least one egg in the woods as an offering to the Easter bunny. But before we get to that bit we had some work to do.

As part of our continuing work with Banana Enterprises and the Save Rock Hall project today’s task mostly involved the planting of 400 trees by 17 volunteers, including some of Rock Hall’s own volunteer team. At this point we would like to say thank you to the Bolton Rotary Club for their donation of a significant number of trees, and also Richard Smythe for his donation which was used to buy in additional trees. So, thank you, your contributions are much appreciated.

The trees were planted near the area we planted up last Halloween, the new woodland will both soak up a bit of carbon and provide habitat for wildlife for years to come.

Now the important bit, the Egg Hunt. Our Officer for Fun hid 20 choccy containing eggs in the woods, assisted by Rock Hall’s Paul. At the appointed time bunny ear wearing volunteers scampered off to hunt high and low for the hidden treasure. As is traditional, one of the eggs was left undiscovered to appease the spirit of the Easter Bunny (may he/she/other hop in peace for ever and a day).

Thanks to all involved doing a great job as usual, and to Sheena for handing out chocolate chicks hatched from chocolate eggs laid by her chocolate chickens.

Darcy Lever Gravel Pits: Restoration

Pond restoration Sunday 12th February 2023

The Darcy Lever gravel pits were formed around 40 years ago when the site was used for the extraction of aggregate to be used in the construction of St.Peter ‘s Way; the construction crews left but the holes in the ground remained and soon filled with water. Over time the site matured and in the early noughties great crested newts were found on the site.

BCV at the Pits 2006
BCV at the Pits 2006

In 2003 a new conservation group was set up by Mike, Dave, Denis, and John to look after the site, the Gravel Pits Action Group (GPAG). Since then GPAG has been maintaining the gravel pits for its wealth of wildlife which includes great crested newt, palmate and smooth newts, common frog, common toad, 18 species of dragon and damselfly, deer, bats, foxes, a multitude of bird life, fungi, and a wide variety of plant life.

In recent years many of the 24 ponds on the site have been in decline, silting up and becoming dominated by typha. The good news is that GPAG obtained funding from English Nature and the Greater Manchester Ecology Unit to restore the site to its former greatness, these 2 bodies provided contractors to dig out several of the ponds in a project planned to run over the next few years.

BCV was involved in some of the early work on the site, but it’s been well over a decade since BCV and GPAG worked together. Well, we’re getting the band back together, GPAG and BCV are once again joining forces to help the gravel pits return to being arguably Bolton’s most biologically rich site.

Today’s task involved removing trees from around the pond, letting in more light to reduce the build up of leaf litter. More light means the oxygenating plants can function better, more sunlight also creates a warmer microclimate which will benefit dragonflies and amphibians. Removing trees also gave us the chance to try out our new piece of kit – a winch. On today’s task we used a hand operated winch to drag a felled tree out of the pond. No more bad backs.

Many thanks to Mike and the GPAG team for inviting us back to the pits, and thanks to BCV’s volunteers for taking part. More pond work can be found in the pond category.