Vienna, 27 September 2019
Picking up where I left off at the end of my last post, my wife and I were on our way back to our hotel from our little tour of Traunkirchen when I spied on the side of the road these beds of wild flowers.
They were really very pretty, with the flowers going from magenta to almost white, passing through a candy pink. Even as I admired and took a couple of photos I had to admit to myself that I no idea what they were.
The next day, at breakfast, I showed our host the pictures. Ah, she said, that’s a Drüsige Springkraut. She had no idea what its English name was, but the German name was enough for my wife. A few clicks later, she handed me her iPad and I was reading a Wikipedia entry on the flower.
Its official name is Impatiens glandulifera. It has many colourful names in English. Three – Policeman’s Helmet, Bobby Tops, Copper Tops – reflect the flower’s apparent resemblance to British policemen’s helmets. Here’s a close-up of the flower itself.
I leave my readers to decide, but I really don’t see this resemblance – unless the helmets have changed considerably since I last lived in the UK. Another name, Gnome’s Hatstand, makes more sense to me. It presumably harks back to the decidedly florid hats which some gnomes in children’s books sometimes sport, and I definitely can see a florid hat in the flower’s shape. And of course the plant then becomes the hatstand for these florid hats. Two other names, Himalayan Balsam and Kiss-me-on-the-mountain, refer to the mountainous origin of the plant; more on this later. Another name listed in Wikipedia is Ornamental jewelweed. I’m guessing this was inspired by the fact that we have a beautiful flower grafted onto a decidedly weedy-looking stem.
The English-speaking world seems to have been particularly poetic in its choice of names. The names in German and French (the only other two languages I checked) are decidedly more prosaic and seem mostly variations on balsam and glands (the latter being also found in the official name). I read that the plant does indeed carry glands, under the leaf stem, which produce a sticky, sweet-smelling, and edible nectar (the latter presumably being the origin of the balsam names). Eager to try this nectar, I poked around under various leaf stems the next time we walked past the flowers but failed to detect anything; a puzzle to be solved another day. The only exception to the list of prosaic Franco-German names is the German Bauernorchidee, Farmer’s orchid. We’ll come back to this link to orchids in a minute.
A beautiful flower – but alas an invasive species! Invasive species are a terrible problem; they have been the subject of an earlier post of mine. The flower’s original home is the Himalayas, specifically to the areas between Kashmir and Uttarakhand. I am ashamed to say that it was an Englishman who unleashed this particular botanical scourge on the rest of the world in 1839. He was no doubt part of that legion of Europeans who followed in the footsteps of conquering European armies, scouring the newly-colonized lands for plants. Initially, they were looking for plants from which some monetarily useful product could be extracted but later they also looked for pretty plants which they could sell to the growing ranks of gardeners looking for an extra splash of colour or texture in their gardens.
The Himalayan Balsam, to use one of its many names, was thus first grown outside of its natural range in the UK but eventually spread to many other parts of the world. Coming back to that German name, Farmer’s orchid, it seems that its popularity was at least in part due to it allowing gardeners of modest income to have a flower that looked very orchid-like; I throw in here a photo of an orchid, to allow readers to see the resemblance.
Real orchids were the playthings of the rich, who could afford not only the stiff purchase price but also the high maintenance costs (and by the way, the picture above is actually of a Victorian orchid hunter; orchids commanded prices which allowed serious expeditions to be funded).
As with water hyacinth which I wrote about in that earlier post on invasive species, the Himalayan balsam eventually escaped from the confines of gardens and began to spread through the countryside. As far as the UK is concerned, it has become one of the country’s most invasive species. It colonizes damp woodlands (which is where we came across it in Traunkirchen, although in beds that were not nearly as thick as this).
It also colonizes the banks of waterways – this is a view of the River Monnow, which makes up part of the England-Wales border.
The flower’s crowding along the banks of rivers is particularly problematical. When the plants die back in autumn they leave the banks bare and subject to erosion from winter and spring floods. I read that the plant is a terrible pest in the Norfolk Broads. That gives me pause; I used to go there as a young boy – 50+ years ago – and I never remember seeing it. The Himalayan balsam is marching across the landscape …
People are trying to do what they can to stop the plant. In some places, there are regular “balsam bashes”, where volunteers go out and physically pull up the plant. Here, for instance, we have a group of volunteers in Yorkshire, who by the size of the pile in front of them have had a hard day’s work.
More extreme measures are required, though, if the invasion is truly to be stopped. The basic problem is that the plant has escaped from all those predators which back home in the Himalayas keep it in check, and none have taken their place in the rest of the world. Researchers in the UK have gone off to the Himalayas to see if they can’t bring at least one of the original predators back to the UK. They have found a very promising candidate: the Himalayan balsam rust. It attacks the plant at various points: the stem, the leaves, the seedlings. This is what the leaves look like once they are under attack.
The scientists are currently conducting field tests. I wish them the best of luck. And I really pray that they will not unwittingly release into the British environment a rust that will find other, native species much more to their liking and which will then forget about attacking the Himalayan balsam. As I pointed out in my previous post on invasive species, this has happened before, and you end up with two invasive species instead of one!
While we wait for the results of the tests to come in, I invite readers to locate their nearest “balsam bash”, or whatever they might be called in the local language, and take part. You will be doing us all a favour and getting a breath of fresh air at the same time.
A beautiful flower, but to be admired in its native habitat and not in our gardens.