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Balsam bashing

As a non-native invasive, Himalayan balsam has been a plant that has been eaten guilt free by UK foragers - albeit with careful collection. However, an email to our offices by the APHA leaves more than a few questions about its continued collection unanswered

The flowerhead of Himalayan balsam showing a flower and forming seed pods
Himalayan balsam: an easy to identify invasive edible but the subject of several UK laws

As mechanisms for seed dispersal go, few can compete with Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera). When ripe, its seed pods burst and shoot their contents - up to 800 seeds per plant - as far as 7m away, explaining one of the plant’s more colourful common names, exploding orchid. Others include poor man’s orchid, reflecting its attractive helmet-shaped pink or purple flowers.

However, Himalayan balsam is actually related to the busy lizzie (Impatiens walleriana), and is classified as an invasive non-native plant, having been naturalised in the UK in 1839. It can grow up to 3m high, making it the tallest annual plant in Europe, and spreads widely, particularly along watercourses. It outcompetes native wildflowers and can cause bank erosion when it dies back in the autumn.

Its saving grace, perhaps, is that all parts of the plant are edible - albeit with very careful harvesting of seeds due to those exploding pods. But while we humans might utilise it, we also spread it, which makes for an uncomfortable dichotomy.

An exploded Himalayan balsam seed pod
An exploded Himalayan balsam seed pod

Himalayan balsam is listed under Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which means it is an offence to plant or cause it to grow in the wild. However, what many people don't know - and what the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) contacted our offices about (as well as the offices of other foraging companies) - was laws under 2019's Invasive Alien Species (Enforcement and Permitting) Order 2019 in England and Wales. Under that Order and Section 14AA of the Wildlife and Countryside Act in Scotland transporting the seeds, or whole plants, is an offence. Therefore neither seeds nor plants should be removed from the site where they are found, and sowing the seeds or planting elsewhere - deliberately or accidentally - would be a particularly serious offence.

This does present a conundrum for foragers, who value the plant for its seeds, both ripe and unripe, which have a pleasantly nutty flavour, and those seed pods, which can be cooked whole, rather like mangetout. Flowers and young leaves can be eaten raw in colourful salads, while older, larger leaves can be cooked in curries - as the plant was used in its native India and Pakistan. And, its hollow stems have been used as organic drinking straws, dispensing with both the annoyance of soggy paper ones and single-use plastic.

But harvesting this balsam must be done with great caution. The 2019 Order allows you to “transport [invasive plants] from your land to a facility for destruction”, which could, you might think, include removing the balsam to be cooked. But the APHA says that, unfortunately, it depends how the seeds are cooked, as “it may mean some seeds can survive the process and potentially end up in waste - compost or kitchen. There is also the risk that individuals drop seeds or dispose of unused seeds inappropriately. As such, any individuals transporting seeds or live plants would certainly be at risk of prosecution.”

Hollow stem of Himalayan balsam
Hollow stem of Himalayan balsam

There are some exemptions within the Act. If Himalayan balsam already exists on your land or in your garden, for example, you do not have to destroy it. The plant is not considered to be intentionally kept or cultivated so you’re not committing an offence. If, however, you do wish to destroy the plant on your land, there are certain things you need to be aware of.

Government guidance says invasive plants can be: sprayed with chemicals; pulled or dug out, whether dead or dying; cut back to prevent the seeds disperse - which, given Himalayan balsam’s aforementioned effective mechanism, will be extremely tricky - buried or burned or disposed of offsite. Also, its preferred habitat along water courses means applications of pesticides is difficult.

Under the Government's guidance on invasive non-native (alien) plant species: rules England and Wales the removal of parts such as seeds, whole plants and cuttings that could reproduce is specifically forbidden but "transport" of a listed species seems to be indicate the whole organism, not parts of it (other than those parts able to reproduce). So presumably the removal and consumption of leaves, flowers and stems (so long as there are no seeds being disturbed) is permitted? Something we are trying to find out but having difficulty getting a definitive answer to.

To help with some of the grey areas for landowners, there are Local Action Groups (LAG), recognised by the government and focused on reducing the risks and impacts associated with invasive non-native species in a specific area. They can: manage invasive non-native species; coordinate local stakeholders carrying out management; share good practice with other groups; and advise on biosecurity. LAGs are invaluable in delivering sustainable, long-term management of certain invasive non-native species at a local and regional level.

For the time being for foragers, however, it seems seeds and seedlings are off the menu. As for flowers, stems and leaves, we are just going to have to wait and see exactly how these laws and rules are interpreted.

Discover more wild edibles and recipes on a foraging course

Always stay safe when foraging. You need to be 100% sure of your identification, 100% sure that your foraged item is edible, and 100% sure that you are not allergic to it (it is good practice to always try a small amount of any new food you are consuming). If in doubt, leave it out!


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