by Paul Cormacain
IN 1839, some English folk brought Himalayan balsam from its native home, and grew it under glass in England. Then they grew it outdoors. Then some seeds escaped, and the balsam began to spread. No one seems to know when it crossed the Irish Sea, but with hindsight it would just have taken a few plants to overrun the whole country.
If you can get your hands on some old flower books, you can see how the older books do not mention this balsam, but with the passage of time the flower gets more and more mention. So it is in the countryside, for I have seen this flower go from the rare status to the very common status. Lately, I have seen it in every direction I looked, well almost every direction.
The Himalayan balsam also gets Indian balsam, and at some stage the English applied the name `policeman's helmet', though I have never heard that name used over here. The scientific name is `Impatiens glandulifera'.
Another scientific name is `Impatiens noli-me-tangere', the last bit being the Latin for `do not touch me', a strange Latin name, you may think. It arises from the fact that to touch the ripe fruit of the touch-me-not balsam will most certainly release the seeds as they are ejected in an explosive fashion. This balsam is to be found in north west England and north Wales, and is native to these countries.
Another balsam introduced into England is the orange balsam, `Impatiens capensis', which hails from north America. I have not yet heard of any reports of it here, but I suspect in the fullness of time it will arrive. The leaves are alternate, and are nearly oval. The flowers have spurs, the fruit is slender and the seed has four ridges.
The Himalayan balsam is now very common. You will see it growing in the Bog Meadows, and in the Lagan Meadows, and indeed all over the place. It is a stout reddish and hairless annual. Its stems are hollow, juicy and brittle, can grow up to 2 metres and occasionally 3 metres high. The flowers are purplish-pink, or white, or pink. When they mature into fruit, they are fleshy, cylindrical, capsules, and if you touch them they tend to explode violently, scattering the black seeds. Noli-me-tangere is not the only explosive flower around!
Another very common, and perhaps underrated flower, is the hare bell. Recently I have seen meadows and meadows full of these flowers, totally dramatic and beautiful. But there were so many of them that folk were walking through them, indeed it was impossible to avoid them. But no matter how many of them succumbed to human and sheep feet, they always seemed to very plentiful.
In Scotland, these flowers are called bluebells. Linked in with magic and folklore, they also get `fairy: bells', 'witches' thimbles' and `old man's bells'. The old man in this case is none other than the devil. Further south in England and across the water from there, they get harebells. Further west they get a completely different name, mearacan gorm, while the scientific name is Campanula rotundifolia. The last word means 'with rounded leaves', which can be just slightly misleading.
If you walk through a meadow of harebells, you will see a long stalk with a beautiful blue bell on top. And the rounded leaves what of them? Well, chances are that you' do not see any. Heart shaped leaves do grow at the base of the stalk, but they can all be withered and dead by the time the harebell is in flower. What is usually left is just the lance shaped foliage of the middle and upper stem.
The harebell spreads underground, where long stems, on or below the surface, send down roots into the ground. The flower propagates, with the fruit capsules forming after the blooming. The seeds form in the capsules, the base of which then has holes in it, and the seed drops through these holes. Propagation made easy!
A walk in the countryside can reveal many of these delightful flowers, and many more besides. Certainly when we go for a walk, the colour, variety and size of these flowers is endless, and beautiful!
Friday August 20 - Children's Wildlife Hour, at 14:30, at Oxford
Island, who can tell you more, 028 3822 2205.
Environmental Summer Scheme at the Quoile Countryside Centre, and more from the Environmental folk at 028 446 15520.
Saturday August 21 - Summer Fair, at Dunluce Castle, 12:00 to 17:00, details from 028 2073 1938.
Sunday August 22 - Whale Watch Day at Portrush Countryside Centre, 10:00, more from 028 7082 3600.
Saturday August 28 - Butterfly Outing from Cnocagh Monument,
east Antrim at 10:30 with Adrian Kernohan, who will tell you more on 028
Bird Fayre at Tannaghmor Gardens, further information from Oxford Island on 028 3832 2205.
Sunday September 26 - Harvest Home, a celebration of the harvest at Tannaghmor Gardens, details from Museum Services 028 3834 1635.