What were they thinking, those Victorians?
During the 19th century, travelling botanists brought seeds of all kinds back from their exotic travels and often gave them to curious gardeners, who would try out these novelties as fashion-statements. In 1839, Himalayan Balsam was introduced and became Quite The Thing. It was so invasive (yes, we know) that it was great for making a huge and spectacular pink display at the back of the garden.
Then there was a certain Miss Welch, who in 1948 was so enamoured of the plant that she took seeds from her home in Sheffield and scattered them all over the place on the Isle of Wight. Or Mrs Norris of Camberley in Surrey who broadcast seeds far and wide, not only in Surrey, but in Ireland, France and Spain, and offered seeds to anyone who would accept them.
Now, apart from a few bee-keepers who recognise that their bees adore its nectar, nobody has a good word for this wretched plant. It marches along river banks and masses into surrounding woodland. It smothers any other species it meets on its relentless progress. It projects its seeds (800 per plant) by entertainingly popping open its seed pods and projecting them several metres away. It’s a bully.
And bullies have to be stopped in their tracks. All over England and beyond at this time of year you’ll find bands of Army Cadets, boy scouts, environmental groups, country lovers and villagers gathering in their local Himalayan Balsam Problem Spot to do battle with this tyrannical species.
We were part of one such band this morning. Our local nature reserve, High Batts, is practically our backyard. It’s a fantastically diverse small habitat for a whole range of birds, plants and other wildlife, and the River Ure courses through it. To the delight of Himalayan Balsam, which chokes the river banks before trying to spread itself all over the reserve. Today, a gang of us got on our dirtiest clothes, found protective gloves, and marched off to show the stuff we meant business. One of our number strimmed the worst affected areas, and the rest of us pulled out plant after plant after plant by its roots, until our hands were sore and our backs ached. I used to think breaking the flower heads off was enough. But no. These plants are many-headed hydras. Wound them and they’ll simply sprout forth ever stronger.
Army cadets and other volunteers had worked hard before us. Others will need to continue another day. But we did a pretty good job. And we were rewarded with elevenses of pork pie and three kinds of home-made cake, and the sight of those exclusively pink-flowered zones restored to satisfying diversity . Definitely worthwhile then.