Himalayan balsam, Impatiens glandulifera, is a common plant of British riversides, pond margins and other wet places and is always said to be too invasive for us to be allowed to grow. It looks as if it’s smothering everything else where it grows, so it’s banned. It can be a lovely plant, so not being allowed to grow it is unfortunate.
On my recent short visit back to England I saw it along the River Nene in Northamptonshire (along with the American native Imaptiens capensis), by the Wey Navigation Canal and River Wey in Surrey and in other waterside places. Some stands of it looked dense and were well over 6ft/2m high.
But the most striking feature was the colours. The flowers varied from cherry red through various purplish and pink shades, including some pretty bicoloured forms, to almost white. Years ago I used to grow a pure white form called ‘Candida’ (with none of the anthocyanins that bring the red and pink colouring); it’s very pretty, but those pale flowered plants I came across this year all had a faint blush of pink.
Also known as policeman’s helmet from the similarity of the flower shape (though not the colour!) to the helmets worn by London policemen, it’s listed as a noxious weed in three US states though it’s not yet found in most country.
However – is it really that bad? Needless to say Ken Thompson gives us the low down in his latest book, Where Do Camels Belong? The Story and Science of Invasive Species. Himalayan balsam in Britain, like purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) in North America, turns out to be an example of a plant that looks as if it’s smothering everything to extinction while the basic science tells a different story.
Dr. Thompson reports that a large scientific study that compared areas that had been invaded with similar habitats that had not concluded that “it (Himalayan balsam) does not represent threat to the plant diversity of invaded areas”. But although one visual assessment turns out to be misjudged, another turns out to be valid. The late flowering of Impatiens glandulifera provides valuable food for bees when few other plants in its favoured damp habitats are flowering. So it’s actually quite useful as well as attractive – so it’s shame that we’re not supposed to grow it.