Country Diary: Handsome plant flourishes along river banks

Himalayan balsam

Driving down Memory Lane, Michael reminisced his childhood days, brought up in lonely country villages south-west of Malton. Claxton, Bossall, Harton, and Barton-le-Willows, all held special memories, so interesting to recall. How scenes had changed! Some almost beyond recognition, yet so pretty and unspoilt. Some cottages and a pond had vanished; hedges and trees were much taller, a school was now a lovely private dwelling, and attractive bungalows had been built. Yet, by contrast, on the outskirts of Barton-le-Willows was a gypsy encampment. Along the grassed verge about half a dozen ponies grazed, and a couple of dogs sniffed around for food. Women were busy cooking over an open fire, enjoying the simple life.

Have you been aware of a hushed silence in the bird world? Have you noticed many feathers scattered along paths and gardens? Late summer and autumn is the time when birds are moulting. They shed and replace feathers in a regular sequence. Wild fowl moult their flight feathers almost simultaneously, and may be flightless for a while. They need to hide away from predators until their new plumage replaces the old.

This year has been a great one for floral displays, fruit trees, and seed production. Apple orchards are laden with fruit, and sycamore keys, lime, horse-chestnut and hazel – to mention but a few, bear heavy crops. Garden-wise, our broad beans haven’t done as well as in previous years, yet runner beans have been excellent. Tomatoes are surprisingly late in ripening, but thanks to Digby, we’ve enjoyed his sweet, succulent home-grown ones. Tigga insists we visit the blackberry site each day so he can select his own near ground level.

Marshy ground, meadows and ditches are the places to find fleabane. The yellow, daisy-like flowers are quite attractive. Centuries ago, it was believed that fleabane, when dried and burned, gave off a vapour which drove fleas away. It was also used as a strewing herb on floors. Thousands of fleas swarmed among the rushes and grasses on the floors of houses. Hopefully the plant named fleabane proved effective!

My favourite wild flower from late summer into October, is a tall, handsome plant which flourishes along river banks, ditches and waste places. Himalayan balsam has a beautiful perfume which is often sensed before it’s seen. The flowers are large, and pink-purple in colour, fancifully shaped like a policeman’s helmet – hence its alternative name. Whilst undertaking a botanical study at Knaresborough in 1957/58, I had to negotiate an extensive colony of Himalayan balsam, which dominated the banks of the River Nidd. I was repeatedly showered by a fusillade of exploding seed capsules. Watch a bumble bee enter the ‘helmet’ of this flower for nectar. The broad, deep ‘helmet’ closes around the insect. As the bee comes into contact with the male and female parts of successive flowers, they’re pollinated, and seeds start to form. Seed capsules ripen, and fling seeds violently far and wide!

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