How you can help tackle one of Britain’s most invasive species

How you can help tackle one of Britain’s most invasive species

Himalayan balsam by Gillian Day

Youth Council member, Chris, shares some simple ways in which you and your local community can help protect your wildlife by tackling Himalayan balsam.

When I say Himalayan balsam, some people will say “Hima-what?”. Others will say “Oh that’s such a pretty flower, isn’t it?” to which my response is usually a monologue about how bad the plant is for our environment and biodiversity, and how we can rally together as a community to reduce it and protect our native species.

Himalayan balsam is a plant that is native, as the name suggests, to the foothills of the Himalayas in Asia. Its beautiful pink flowers led Victorian plant hunters to take some and introduce it to British gardens back in 1839. Since then, a number of factors have led to Himalayan balsam establishing itself as one of the most invasive plants in Britain, outcompeting a range of valuable native species and harming habitats for our birds, insects and mammals.

One of these factors is that each plant produces up to 800 seeds as it flowers multiple times throughout the summer! Many of you will be familiar with the seed pods that explode when you touch them, allowing them to spread far and wide. You may have even, like me when I was young and inquisitive, enjoyed popping them when you saw them. The seeds are also very durable as they can be transported by the rivers they grow alongside. With them being made to survive freezing winters and monsoon summers in the Himalayas, they have no trouble surviving our winters and germinating in our summers.

Himalayan balsam growing in early summer before the flowers have bloomed

A close-up of Himalayan balsam as seen around this time of year without its flowers on. Notice the shape of the leaves and the long fibrous stem.

Once it has established itself, Himalayan balsam is a very problematic plant. It competes with native plants for light, nutrients, pollinators and space, excluding other plants and reducing biodiversity. It dies back in winter, leaving riverbanks bare and open to erosion. In addition, dead leaves and stems from the plant don’t degrade well in our climate and block waterways, increasing flood risk!

Himalayan balsam is present all over the UK, with some particular hotspots in the Lancashire and North Merseyside area. It loves wetland areas and riverbanks where it has some shade and plenty of access to water. Many volunteer hours each year are spent at our nature reserves such as Lunt Meadows tackling the plant so that it does not spread. In 2003, the Environment Agency estimated it would cost £300 million to eradicate Himalayan balsam from the UK entirely.

However, I believe there is great potential power in the community to help eradicate the weed. Here are some simple tips for your community groups to come together and help tackle Himalayan balsam.

Three young men clearing Himalayan balsam from a woodland

Me (middle) and friends from my Church community out pulling a large patch of Himalayan Balsam at Moss Bank Park in Bolton.

1. Identify and tell others

The best first step is to know what you’re looking for and where to look. As you can see in the image at the very top of this post, Himalayan balsam produces helmet-shaped pink flowers from stems up to 3m tall. At this time of year, however, the flowers may not have bloomed just yet. This makes it a great time to get it before it can produce seeds. So, look out for the plant with its serrated-edge leaves and distinguishable fibrous, hollow, celery-like stem. This year appears to not have been as good a year for Himalayan balsam as it is a lot shorter in places than it was this time last year. All the more reason to tackle it whilst it is on the backfoot!

Himalayan balsam is found in large numbers along river banks and within adjacent dense woodland, particularly around Bolton and the Greater Manchester area. When you spot it, make sure to tell your friends and family about the plant and how damaging it is, and share your sighting so that others can look out for balsam and tackle it.

2. Pull, snap, pile

Once you know what you’re looking for, the best and most fun way to make a big impact is by pulling the balsam up, snapping it and piling up the debris. Himalayan balsam is really easy to pull up by the stem and shouldn’t give much resistance. It is completely harmless to touch though you might want to use gloves to avoid nearby nettles. Snapping it is also really satisfying as it is full of water and makes a great noise! This snapping also prevents it from re-rooting itself when on the floor. Piling it up then makes it easier to be broken down by micro-organisms so the nutrients can be returned to the soil.

This is a great activity for people of all ages and is a wonderful way of getting the community involved with environmental action. Remember to maintain social distancing and get permission from landowners if not going on public areas.

3. Use it for good

There are a few ways of turning such an invasive and damaging plant into something good. If it is too late to pull the balsam because it has gone to seed and you don’t want to help distribute them by popping the seed pods, you can harvest the seeds to make a Himalayan balsam curry. Carefully place a bag around the seed pods when extracting to ensure that no seeds are released to the ground. There are plenty of recipes online as the plant has been eaten in India for hundreds of years.

Jam can also be made using the flower petals, so these can be harvested to prevent the flower from seeding and spreading too. Check out recipes online.

Let us know how you get on by sharing your progress and any other ideas with us on our social media platforms.