Deploying a natural enemy for one of the UK’s most invasive weeds

Wayne Coles, CABI
Jan 2020

For 180 years Britain’s waterways have gradually become clogged and choked with what the Victorian gardeners thought in 1839 was a pretty addition to the nation’s landscape.

But Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera), also known as Touch-me-not Balsam and Policeman’s Helmet, is no longer regarded as a visual delight but rather a blight upon Britain’s riverbanks, streams, ponds, lakes, damp woodlands, roadways and railways.

Himalayan balsam was brought to the UK by the Victorians as an ornamental plant but it has since become the scourge of the nation’s waterways – Photo: CABI

In fact, the plant – whose native range is the foothills of the Indian and Pakistani Himalayas – is considered one of the UK’s most widespread invasive weed species competing with native plant species for space, light, nutrients and pollinators, thereby reducing local biodiversity.

Though it dies back in winter, Himalayan balsam is – amongst other places – causing a nuisance on the River Tweed in Scotland as part of a nationwide invasion which in 2003 the Environment Agency (EA) has estimated would cost £300 million to eradicate. The plant has since continued to invade new areas.

Nevertheless, science is trying to fight back against the Himalayan balsam ‘menace’ with a biological weapon in its arsenal – the fungal agent Puccinia komarovii var. glanduliferae– that will be released into Scotland in 2020.

Dead plant material from Himalayan balsam can also enter rivers and increase the risk of flooding.

It was back in 2006 when CABI was asked by the EA, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Scottish Government to find a reliable. effective and safe natural enemy to help control Himalayan balsam – a journey which has seen scientists adopt a ‘classic approach’ and return to the foothills of the Himalayas for a natural solution.

After sourcing a rust fungus from the Puccinia species and bringing it back to CABI’s quarantine facilities in Egham, Surrey, for further analysis and rigorous testing scientist now believe they have a tangible biological solution for the invasive weed which will be released with funding from Scottish Natural Heritage’s Biodiversity Challenge Fund in partnership with the Tweed Forum.

Kate Pollard, a Research Scientist at CABI, said, “The highly damaging fungus was identified by CABI in the foothills of the Himalayas, where it infects leaves and kills seedlings of the plant, helping to maintain population levels.

Extensive laboratory testing was undertaken under quarantine conditions to confirm that the fungus was highly host-specific, infecting only Himalayan balsam, and safe for release.

“Approval to release the rust into England and Wales was granted in 2014 and since then, the rust has been released at 47 sites across 19 counties. Field results are promising with high levels of infection, spread and overwintering recorded at a number of sites.”

The rust fungus Puccinia komarovii var. glanduliferae could go a long way to helping to solve the River Tweed’s Himalayan balsam invasion – photo: CABI

Prior to the ‘appliance of this natural solution, Himalayan balsam on the River Tweed has been tackled using a combination of hand-pulling the weed, thanks to an army of volunteers, and spraying.

The fungus has previously been released at a site along the River Tweed on the English side of the border. It is hoped that the release later this year will help step up the fight against Himalayan balsam on the waterway further as part of a concentrated longer-term solution.

Reference
Environment Agency. (2003). Guidance for the control of invasive weeds in or near fresh water. Environment Agency, London, UK

Find out more about CABI’s work to release biological controls to fight Himalayan balsam from the dedicated website.
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Did you know?

Himalayan balsam is Britain’s tallest annual plant with each plant tending to be around 1-2 metres high, although they can reach a height of 2.5 metres in some cases!

According to Section 14 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, it is an offense in England and Wales to allow Himalayan Balsam to spread into the wild. Therefore, it is highly recommended that you remove Himalayan Balsam from your grounds or garden.

It is important to make sure that when disposing of Himalayan balsam, the waste disposal site has a permit to accept and dispose of invasive species. As GOV.UK explains, you can be fined up to £5,000 or be sent to prison for 2 years if you do not properly dispose of Himalayan balsam and other non-native invasive plants.

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