Nature at Burnaby Lake - Himalayan Balsam and Still Creek
Himalayan Balsam at Still Creek
Himalayan balsam is a lovely plant with attractive flowers and a strong fragrance. The flowers are hooded, giving the plant the alternate name of policeman's helmet. The plant grows as a wildflower and is also planted in gardens. Unfortunately, the Himalayan balsam is invasive in some areas.
One of the places where the Himalayan balsam can be found in British Columbia is around Still Creek in Burnaby. This creek travels across the centre of the city and eventually enters Burnaby Lake. The area where Still Creek approaches the lake and the land around the lake itself form a park known as the Burnaby Lake Regional Park.
I often visit Still Creek and Burnaby Lake and always have my camera with me. There are many beautiful and interesting plants and animals to be seen in the area, including the Himalayan balsam.
Still Creek in Burnaby Lake Regional Park
Despite the creek's name, the water in Still Creek may not be "still". The water moves rapidly at some times of the year and in some parts of its route.
Still Creek in Burnaby
Burnaby is a city in the southwestern corner of British Columbia. The city contains many watercourses, including creeks and rivers, as well as several lakes. In recent times there has been a strong emphasis on maintaining and where necessary reestablishing the health of Burnaby's aquatic areas.
Burnaby contains areas of original and undeveloped landscape as well as many parks. It also contains residential, commercial and industrial areas. In the recent past, Still Creek suffered from its route through the industrial parts of the city and was heavily polluted. The water quality in the creek is now improving, however, due to the work of some very dedicated people. In fact, the quality of the water is currently so good that salmon have returned to the creek to spawn after an absence of about eighty years.
The Himalayan Balsam or Policeman's Helmet
The scientific name of the Himalayan balsam is Impatiens glandulifera. As its common name suggests, it's native to the Himalayas. It has been introduced as a garden plant in many parts of the world due to its beauty. The plant has spread from gardens to the wild, where it's sometimes invasive and annoying.
Stems and Leaves
The Himalayan balsam is a tall plant and may reach a height of nine feet or more. The stems are generally hollow and are green or red in colour. The main stem of the plant sometimes becomes thick and cane-like. The large leaves are lanceolate (long, narrow and tapering to a point) and are toothed. The midrib of the leaves is prominent. The plant's roots are quite shallow and weak, which makes hand pulling of the plants feasible.
A single plant produces multiple flowering stems. Himalayan balsam flowers may be white, light pink, dark pink, purple or multicoloured. A clump of plants with flowers of different colours is a lovely sight. The shape of a flower reminded someone of a traditional policeman's helmet worn in Britain, giving the plant one of its alternate names. The flower has five petals, one of which forms a hood over the flower. The flower's nectar is very attractive to bees.
Himalayan balsam flowers produce a strong scent. The fragrance is most noticeable when a group of plants are growing close to each other and are all in flower.
Himalayan Balsam Fruits or Seed Pods
Another name for Himalayn balsam and for some of its relatives is Touch-Me-Not. The fruits or seed pods are long, thin and ribbed. If they're touched when they are ripe, the pods immediately spring open and shoot their seeds into the air. The ribs of the pod are instrumental in ejecting the seeds and remain as coils once the seeds are released. The seeds travel as far as twenty feet and remain viable for eighteen months to two years.
The first word in the scientific names of Touch-Me-Nots - Impatiens - is Latin for "impatient". The name is said to be derived from the plant's habit of releasing its seeds at the slightest touch. It's fun to touch a ripe pod and watch the mini-explosion. It might not be a good idea to deliberately release the seeds of invasive Himalayan balsam, however, although the pods will probably open from natural causes on their own.
Some areas have native Touch-Me-Nots. Their seed pods can be triggered without guilt. In British Columbia, jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) is a native plant. It has orange flowers and a more delicate appearance than the sturdy policeman's helmet. The leaves of jewelweed glisten when wet, giving the plant its name.
Himalayan Balsam Releasing its Seeds
Estimates for the total number of seeds released by a Himalayan balsam plant in a season range from 800 to 2,500. Whatever the true number, that's a lot of seeds!
Why can Himalayan Balsam be a Problem?
There are a variety of reasons why Himalayan balsam can be detrimental to its environment.
- A single Himalayan balsam plant produces many seeds, allowing the plant to spread rapidly.
- The plant often grows in wetlands besides watercourses. The seeds survive in the water and are carried to new areas of wet soil beside the watercourse.
- Since a Himalayan balsam plant grows rapidly and is so tall, it can crowd out shorter plants.
- Himalayan balsam is an annual plant. When a group of plants die in the fall, the ground is left bare and is vulnerable to erosion.
- The fact that Himalayan balsam is so attractive to bees reduces the insects' visits to native plants.
Controlling Himalayan Balsam
At the moment, although Himalayan balsam is noticeable in Burnaby Lake Regional Park, its growth doesn't seem to be out of control. I've been going to the park for many years, however, and have noticed that the plant is becoming more abundant. I suspect that many people are delighted to see the pretty flowers and smell their intense fragrance without realizing the problems that the plants can cause.
The best method of control for Himalayan balsam is said to be physical removal of the plant and roots. This may be time consuming, but it's the safest method. Pesticides work too, but they are not good to apply in a park setting where they may affect other plants. Pesticides are certainly not advisable next to a body of water, where Himalyan balsam often grows.
Some people grow Himalayan balsam plants in their gardens. This can be a serious problem. It doesn't do much good to remove the wild plants if the area is then reseeded by garden plants. It's better to choose other species of Impatiens for gardens.
If someone decides to remove Himalayan balsam plants by pulling them from the ground, they should investigate the best way to dispose of the plants in their community. Pulled plants can still release seeds.
The Revitalization of Still Creek
Still Creek in Burnaby Lake Regional Park is a beautiful stream and attracts many plants and animals. Its health depends on what is happening in the rest of the creek, however. One of the reasons why the creek is so interesting for visitors such as myself to observe is the work that has been done upstream to protect the creek.
Many people are working to revitalize the stream. One of the leaders in the effort is Mark Angelo. He's a keen river conservationist who also publicizes the importance of river and stream health internationally. He's the founder of both BC Rivers Day and World Rivers Day. Before his retirement, Mark Angelo was the head of the Fish, Wildlife and Recreation program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.
Still Creek once contained industrial contaminants, sewage and garbage. As the video below shows, with the right care, streams in urban and industrial areas can be as healthy as those in park settings.
Mark Angelo Discusses the Return of Salmon to Still Creek
World Rivers Day is celebrated each year on the last Sunday of September. According to the event's website, more than sixty countries celebrate the day.
The Value of Creeks and Streams
Creeks and streams are valuable environmental features and have much to offer both us and the environment. They provide water for wildlife and in some cases humans. They also support the growth of plants. In addition, they transport useful sediments and nutrients to new areas. Streams play an important role in the water cycle on Earth.
It's wonderful for people to discover that streams such as Still Creek can be interesting and educational places, even in cities. It could be argued that Himalayan balsam, although pretty, is not the best plant to appear near a stream due to its potentially invasive nature. There are many native plants that grow on stream banks, though. A creek or stream can be a very enjoyable place to visit.
© 2015 Linda Crampton