Saturday, 2 February 2013

Impatiens glandulifera (policeman's helmet)

One-Way Weeds

Impatiens glandulifera with gatekeeper butterfly

I think I've mentioned before that I used to have an old post office Morris 1000 van. I had a strict maintenance schedule for GPO vans and this was to run them til they stopped and then get another one. Having said this, I did perform occasional highly technical repairs. For example the radiator on this particular one leaked and someone had told me you could solve the problem by putting an egg in. This led to a pleasant smell of cooking in the vehicle but the efficacy wore off after about fifty miles, meaning a new egg was required on a regular basis. I always used free-range, so this was pretty environmentally responsible for the time and there was always a carton of them under the dashboard. Eventually the system got completely blocked with what I suppose, in culinary terms was poached egg, and I forget what happened after that. I've a suspicion I did an unsuccessful experiment to see whether you can run a car without a radiator, but merciful old age memory has blocked out the result.

I was driving down Oldham Road in the van one day and made a left turn down a fairly narrow street. My wife was with me and she suddenly screamed. This over-reaction to  my driving was fairly common in those days and, come to think of it, has steadily got worse. More so when  my daughter is also on board because this means there are three drivers. Anyway, I suppose on this occasion she had some justification, because a policeman was crossing the road in front of us, looking the other way.

"Bloody hell", I yelled, jamming on the brakes "you'd think a copper'd have more sense".

At this point the policeman turned round, saw the egg-laden bonnet about three feet away and, for some reason, jumped in the air. I often think back to the way his helmet came down two seconds after he did,    and have come to the conclusion there must be some law of physics that explains this. Then I realised he was crossing the road at pedestrian lights facing the other way. The evidence was purely circumstantial, but it seemed to point to the fact that this was a one-way street and, more than likely, I wasn't going the recommended one.

The officer of the law banged imperiously on the driver's side window, not looking very pleased.

"Park up over there", he instructed, when I wound the window down, so I pulled over and got out. Its worth pointing out that the van wasn't in the best of conditions: one wing mirror was loose and it rotated slowly when the vehicle was moving, giving a wonderful view of what was in the shop windows but being a bit neglectful of what was actually behind on the road; the engine started when it felt like it, which wasn't often enough for my liking, and various other defects showed up intermittently. No doubt there is another blog in there somewhere. Anyway, the policeman leaned on the back of it and read the riot act.

Another aspect of the van that was a bit defective was the handbrake, and the weight of the arm of the law leaning caused  it to start moving. However, it stopped before he noticed, because my quick-thinking wife had leaned across and pressed the foot-brake. Even then he could have had me when the brake lights gave us away, but luckily they hadn't worked for some time.

He had a considerable rant, informing me I'd taken ten years off his life and giving the impression that going the wrong way up a one way street was subject to the death penalty. I thought he'd throw the book at me but he didn't. For some reason he seemed to be a bit of a nervous wreck and gave me the impression he wanted me out of his sight.

"Bear that in mind and now bugger off", he said when he ran out of rant. I felt quite indignant really. What had happened to police politeness when addressing members of the public?- surely I was entitled to a 'sir' and this was the police brutality they talk about. Maybe I should report him. Police on the telly never used bad language like that (not in the seventies, anyway). Even when a murderer is being arrested they refer to him as 'sir'. He had gone a funny red colour though, and he had nearly been run over, so I thought it best not to pursue the matter. On reflection, I suppose he may have had a point.

 I got back in the van and tried to start the engine. It wouldn't.

The friendly constable stood watching, and I swear he went a deeper red than the traffic light when I had to ask him for a push. It was alright though, I was used to this. With him and my wife pushing and me running and shoving alongside, steering through the open door  until we reached speed, I was able to dive in, ram it into gear, and roar off, leaving Plod looming through a cloud of black exhaust smoke. He looked a bit like Clint Eastwood in that scene in 'A Fistful Of Dollars' and I got the impression he'd have liked to blast me to oblivion, like Clint did with the baddies. He looked even worse when I did a three point turn and came back.  It was a one way street, after all.

Not surprisingly, this incident reminded me of policeman's helmet (Impatiens glandulifera), that ubiquitous weed of damp places. It was first introduced by the early Victorians as an attractive garden plant. One of those things that seemed a good idea at the time. Now it is rampant along river banks throughout the country, out -competing native plants for light and nutrients and making some places inaccessible. At times it can reach a height of 9ft.

Called policeman's helmet because the flower is the same shape as its namesake, it is also known as Himalayan balsam, with reference to its place of origin, and is closely related to the busy Lizzie we grow as bedding. The reason it has taken hold so successfully can be seen in its seed pods: the plant forces water into them until the pressure is so great that they explode. Sometimes even a fly landing on one can set it off, sending seeds as far as twenty feet away. This gives it tremendous potential to exploit new ground and also probably explains a preponderance of flies on crutches in the vicinity.

Explosive seed capsules

Much disliked for the reasons outlined, balsam bashing days are organised in many places, the object being to destroy the plants before they set seed. However seeds are viable for a couple of years, so only regular 'bashes' are going to make an appreciable difference.

On the positive side, the flowers are attractive and bees love them, climbing out positively plastered with pollen and, if you look closely, smiling. In addition to this, all upper parts of the plant are edible for humans.

Bee emerging from flower

Coming back to one-way streets: maybe the policeman's helmet and various other alien plants are destined to move inexorably forward until the day comes that we forget they're foreigners. It's happened with sycamore, conker trees and many more, so why not? Be nice to think that the people of different nations will eventually blend in the same way.

Roll on one world.

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