Bash this bullying balsam
AS I wander through the north west countryside as part of my job – or with the dog, our Alfie – I do spot a lot of wildlife.
However, over the past couple of years my view has become somewhat restricted by walls and walls of Himalayan balsam. This plant is changing the landscape along river banks and in woodland all over England.
On the face of it Himalayan balsam is a pretty plant and it is pretty spectacular, growing up to 1.5 metres tall, in huge forests. The pink tubular flowers have given rise to it being named ‘policeman’s helmet’, ‘bobby tops’, ‘copper tops’ and ‘kiss-me-on-themountain’. It produces thousands of seeds and they fire out of their pods in spectacular explosions.
This is all very nice but these plants are an environmental disaster.
That may not seem the case when you see bees buzzing in and out of the flowers, spreading their pollen. And some beekeepers would have you believe that Himalayan balsam is the sole saviour of our threatened bee population.
It needs to be stressed that if the balsam forests weren’t there, there would be plenty of native wild flowers for the bees to pollinate. While the balsam dominates the landscape, lovely willowherb and agrimony have no place to grow.
Imagine woods without the lovely pinks, reds and yellows of willowherbs and plants like agrimony which have been used as baths for tired feet since the olden days.
A little closer to home, the rare, native Touchme-not Balsam has become more endangered by its larger cousin’s bullying presence.
Himalayan balsam produces more of its strong and sweet nectar than other native plants, which attracts insects and means other native plants are not being pollinated.
I have also been told that honey from Himalayan balsam sources is not as tasty as other forms of honey – but I think the jury is still out on this one.
This plant, which is believed to have spread around the country after escaping from a private garden in 1885, looks great for a couple of weeks of the year and then starts to look sad and bedraggled as all the plants in the stand die off.
When Himalayan balsam dies it leaves huge areas of barren ground which is particularly bad on river banks which, without being webbed together by native plant roots, become susceptible to erosion.
While bee numbers have been devastated over the past century the Wildlife Trust and other conservation bodies are working with land owners to create fields and landscapes of wild flowers, like corn poppies, ox-eye daisies and vetches.
So Himalayan balsam is not the answer to bee problems and it’s time for landowners and councils to plan a programme to remove this menace before it takes over completely.
The Wildlife Trust will be holding balsam bashing sessions on its reserves in spring.
To support the work of the Wildlife Trust text WILD09 with the amount you want to donate to 70070.
●● The flowers of Himalayan balsam may look pretty but these plants are ‘an environmental disaster’