The beauty of the beast

It was during a recent regular stroll along the banks of the River Frome, just outside of Bristol, that I first encountered this very eye-catching plant. I couldn’t exactly miss it, as it had managed to completely colonise the banks between the road on which I was standing, and the river beyond. With its deep-reddish stems, leaves with heavily serrated edges and the most stunning orchid-like fuscia pink slipper-shaped flowers, I had to stop and give it a much closer look.

‘I think they call it Himalayan balsam’ came a voice from a walker with his wife standing behind me. We agreed that this species didn’t exactly look native, so out came the camera before leaving this colony to some very appreciative bees.

This plant otherwise known as Impatiens glandulifera or ‘kiss-me-on-the-mountain’ does indeed originate from the Himalayan mountains from where it was found and introduced into Great Britain in 1839 by one of many botanical explorers of the time. It was subsequently eagerly adopted by Victorian gardeners keen to own the latest exotic species.

However, just like other non-natives such as gardener’s enemy number one, Field Bindweed Convolvulus arvensis and the never-to-be-touched Giant Hogweed Heracleum mantegazzianum introduced by well-meaning Victorian botanist explorers, this plant has proved less than welcome, after rapidly escaping from garden confines into the surrounding countryside.

Colonies of this plant once established along the wet habitats of river banks, rapidly out-compete native species before dying off in the autumn to reveal bare ground which is then more susceptible to erosion. Before this occurs however, Impatiens glandulifera uses its explosive seed pods to send hundreds of seeds several metres away from the parent plant. This party trick is especially effective where these seeds are then carried downstream where they then germinate and colonise a new area of river bank, and so the life-cycle repeats as its invasion continues.

So, despite recent trends to allow wild flower species to flourish, often at the expense of grassland to support native bee populations, this is one very attractive species that is actively targeted for removal in line with local council environmental policies.

So if you do get to find a colony of these plants on a riverside walk, enjoy the flowers while you can, as they may not be there for much longer.