Balsam bashing bees bums

Kayaking up the Thames from Richmond Bridge to Teddington Lock, as I do most weekends, gives me chance and the time to check out the riparian flora, and the bird life.

My kayak, a Barracuda Beachcomber, is over-engineered for the Thames so compared with the swift racing craft (the K1s) that squirt from the Richmond Canoe Club, I have plenty of time to identify plants along the way.

On the weekend it was Indian (or Himalayan) Balsam. An invasive weed of riverbanks and damp areas all through the UK, Impatiens glandulifera, is I'm afraid particularly pretty at the moment.

My pictures, taken today during an equally leisurely walk along the Thames with Lynda and dog, don't do it justice. The few flowers I found easily photographed were in the shade beside the Tow Path. Let me just assure you that en masse, from the river, it looks great! This is a picture copied from a German invasive plant site called Korina:

Indian Balsam doesn't just appeal to Australian botanists kayaking in the Thames. Its flowers produce lots of nectar and attract bees away from other perhaps more deserving (local) plants.

I'm not the first to celebrate this generally disliked plant. Richard Mabey spoke its praises on BBC4 last year. Mabey tells us that Indian Balsam was introduced into English gardens in 1839, but within 10 years it ventured out onto riverbanks and beyond.

It came from central Asia and in Victoria times it was appealing not only for it's exotic pedigree but because it was large, sombre and aggressive in the garden!

As is his want, Mabey has dug up plenty of cute common names for the plant: Policeman's Helmet (referring to its flower), Bee Bums (bees get covered in pollen and you can only see their rear end when they emerge), Poor Man's Orchid and Stinky Pops (due to its arguably unpleasant smell and the way the seeds pop).

Mabey joins a group balsam bashing - part of a zero tolerance approach to Indian Balsam and its other relatives (e.g. Himalayan Balsam) - while trying to maintain a sense of balance in our attitude to this rather pretty plant. He argues than rather than being a 'Himalayan terror' it colours and enlivens our urban environment, growing in places where native vegetation doesn't do so well. He calls for science to show that removing it really does bring back more of our native flora.

Whether friend or foe, it looks good, and adds to the charm of my water-borne rambles along the Thames.

Images: the shots from the river were taken last November, so they are a little more autumnal than London at the moment.