Dear Readers, on Bank Holiday Monday I went for a walk on Hampstead Heath, and I discovered this new ‘weed’ growing in the woods alongside the path. I think it must be a relatively recent arrival because I have never noticed it before, and it is quite distinctive, with its primrose-yellow flowers and orange pollen. It is spreading at quite a rate, and seems to be out-competing the enchanter’s nightshade that used to grow prolifically in the dry shade here.
Small balsam is a member of the busy lizzie family, something that is not obvious until you have a look at the buds, to the right of the photo below. It is also closely related to Himalayan balsam, that scourge of riverbanks/great plant for pollinators depending on your view, although this is a much more delicate plant.
There is some debate about how small balsam originally got to the UK from it’s original habitat, the damp woodlands of Russia and Central Asia. In ‘Alien Plants’, Clive Stace and Michael Crawley discuss the various theories. One is that it was imported accidentally with Russian timber in the mid 19th century – small balsam is the only plant thought to have arrived and thrived in the UK in this way. Another is that the seeds were imported along with buckwheat which was used as feed for gamebirds. It’s also difficult to rule out contamination from fly-tipping of horticultural waste, especially at the edge of woods. Whatever route the plant took, it is certainly very happy now.
Small balsam is hermaphroditic, which means that it can self-pollinate, but it is largely pollinated by hoverflies, who dance in the dappled sunlight from the trees above, patrolling their three-dimensional territories and occasionally darting down for some sustenance.
As I was taking photographs of the small balsam a young woman with the most delightfully mud-covered small dog stopped for a chat. She told me that she had been on a herbal walk on the Heath some months ago, but had forgotten most of what she’d been told. I sympathised: my memory is so full of medical appointments and other organisational imperatives that relate to my elderly parents that I can barely remember how to get dressed in the morning. However, it’s surprising how the discovery of a new plant, and furthermore one that I can almost identify with confidence, concentrates the mind and lifts the spirit. For a few minutes I felt almost normal, as opposed to just about hanging on.
Small balsam leaves are apparently edible if cooked in one change of water, and they can also be used as a treatment for ringworm, nettle stings and warts. It seems that they can also be used as a treatment for an itchy scalp. I am always a little nervous when a plant that kills things (such as the fungus that causes ringworm) is also said to be edible, so as always caution is advised. Plus, as this seems to be a plant of the forest edge it is liable to contamination by passing dogs, especially on the Heath where at least one pooch seems to be de rigour.
The seeds are also said to be edible, but good luck with collecting them – as with all members of the family, touching the ripe seed pods will send the seed cascading into the air, one reason that an alternative name for balsams is ‘touch-me-nots’ (and that the generic name ‘Impatiens’ literally means ‘impatient’.
The moth itself is a handsome creature, striped in shades of rust, chocolate and cream. The one in the photo below has kindly posed him/herself against a white wall for maximum impact.
And as my photos are not quite up to scratch this week, here is a great photo showing the delicate tracery of burnt-orange and blood-red on the ‘throat’ of the flower.The path alongside the wood where the small balsam grows is now shadowed on the other side by a massive fence and a lime hedge. Behind it is one of the largest houses that I’ve ever seen. I only know this because, at various times in its construction, us commoners could get a glimpse through the gaps in the hoardings, to see such things as a swimming pool complete with metal tubular slides from the first floor into the water. On the other side of the fence, folk who have arrived on the bus and puffed their way up the hill walk their elderly stiff-legged terriers, and mothers push their prams en route to the ice cream van. Beneath the fence, a mysterious stream flows out, crosses the path and trickles down into the wood, right where the small balsam is growing, and I wonder if the wet conditions have changed the ecosystem just enough for the plant to thrive. It reminds me that no matter how much people isolate themselves from the community that they live in, they are still part of it, and impact upon it. Whether they care, or are happy in their own little bubble, remains to be seen.
Photo One by By Léo-Paul Robert – Self-scannedDie Raupen und der Maler – Léo-Paul Robert, Stiftung Sammlung Robert, Biel, ISBN 3-9522989-4-8, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39694661
Photo Two from CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=795705