Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The plant version of bubble wrap

Blog update: My apologies for not posting as regularly during the month of December as I usually do. I have been running close to the end of the photos I took on my last plant photography bonanza in September, and couldn't come up with an idea for where to go to take pictures of plants to blog about during the winter months that would look like more than just sticks. Then the idea hit me. The greenhouse on campus! Starting tomorrow I have a whole bunch of tropical species to blog about, courtesy of the UWO greenhouses. Very few if any of them will be native species, but some of them are incredibly interesting and unusual (I've been doing my homework!) so I think you'll all enjoy learning about them. I will also be running a series of blog posts about "How to Identify Sticks" once the winter really sets in, so stay tuned for how to identify woody plants during the winter months.

Species name: Impatiens glandulifera

Common name: Himalayan balsam

Location: Ontario

The Himalayan balsam, as the name suggests, is originally from the Himalayan region in Asia. The plant is a temperate plant, growing very happily on mountain sides up to the tree line, but preferring areas closer to the base of the mountains. Unfortunately, it is one of the most dangerously invasive plants in North America and Europe, where its introduction (sometimes purposely as an ornamental and/or medicinal plant, other times by accident) has completely destroyed the understory of many forests previously dominated by native species. This plant can grow so large so fast that even garlic mustard (which you can read all about HERE) has a rough time competing with it. The stems of this plant are incredibly unusual; they are hollow between the nodes and completely filled with fluid. More on this later...

Another unfortunate characteristic of this plant is the seed dispersal mechanism contained in the ripe fruit. There's a good reason why this plant is called the "touch-me-not," and it has nothing to do with it being toxic on the skin. The fruits have a ballistic mechanism that forcibly discharges the seeds when touched (and when the fruit is ripe). This isn't an unfortunate characteristic for the plant itself; it actually ensures for incredibly successful seed dispersal. This is an unfortunate characteristic for environmental health in areas where the plant is not native. Have you ever had the opportunity to play with the fruits and get them to release their seeds?! If not, it's quite the experience. You touch it and it feels like something just exploded in your hand and seeds go flying everywhere! It's fantastic! And that's the exact reason why it's so unfortunate: in populated areas, the main reason for successful seed dispersal is due to...children! It's just as entertaining for kids (and some adults. Guilty as charged) to force the plant to release the seeds as it is to give them a sheet of bubble wrap and watch them occupy themselves for hours.

Once established, this plant is incredibly difficult to eradicate but there's a company in Germany that just might have found the secret to getting rid of it. They are busy developing a wide array of products made from the flowers of the plant, in hopes that the picking of the plant for profit will eventually contribute a financial means for its eradication. A brilliant idea, and I hope it works out for them. We could definitely use something like that in southern Ontario!

Apparently all parts of this plant (including the flowers, which are incredibly attractive) are edible. I've never tried it, but I have seen flowers of this species adorning wedding cakes. I haven't actually seen anyone try to eat them, usually they're picked off and left on the plate as a non-edible decoration. I have, however, greatly enjoyed the medicinal use of this plant on many occasions. The liquid contained in the stems is incredibly effective at soothing itchy, dry skin due to any cause. It will take away the itch associated with a poison ivy rash almost instantly (which even calamine lotion can't do!), relieve the itch of mosquito bites, take away the sting from bee and wasp stings, moisturize dry skin, and soothe the itchy pain of sunburns. Because the plant is non-toxic, it's even safe to use on your face, but make sure you don't get it in your eyes. Just because it's safe for your digestive tract doesn't mean it won't irritate the sensitive tissues of your eyeballs! And, like with all plants, before you consume or otherwise use this plant in any way, make sure you are absolutely certain of the correct identification. The leaves look slightly like stinging nettle leaves; you would NOT want to confuse the two in an attempt to soothe a poison ivy rash!