Botanical Exuberance: On Himalayan Balsam


Through the summer, when walking through the woods and beside roads, I find my fingers extending out to touch a green and leathery seed pod. In response, the ovary wall curls back, and with a pop sends a shower of seeds to the ground. It is a compulsive and absent-minded habit which I’ve had since childhood, a botanical equivalent of popping bubble wrap. It’s generic name is a come-on, Impatiens, it says; go on, pop me, now. I often find little groups of children standing around patches of balsam in the summer, most of them attending to nature more closely than they would otherwise. It is a purely visceral way to relate to nature, and one which even the most nature-alienated child understands. Even if they don’t know what berries are safe to eat, they know what happens when they touch those musty smelling plants. Pop, whizz. Whereas to them the rest of nature might seem like a uniform green swathe, these plants are bursts of fireworks.
Himalayan Balsam is a widely reviled alien weed, but as with many hated plants it is difficult to distinguish the actual ecological harm it does in a specific case from general displeasure at its presence. It is not a native (whatever that means) of Britain, having been introduced from India around 1839. They had the tenacity to escape from cultivation, establish themselves in the wild and be so conspicuous there; a foreign threat in English soil. It is widely claimed that balsam smothers native vegetation, blocks waterways and then leaves the bank bare to erosion in the winter, and therefore should be eradicated. However, is it is difficult to distinguish whether the presence of the balsam causes the ecological damage, or whether balsam is taking up the opportunities opened up to it by the ecological damage that we have caused.
Balsam thrives on disturbed ground with a rich soil, such as the banks of eutrophicated waterways, the habitats a diverse native floral community abhors. Furthermore, balsam has it’s greatest coverage in August and is inconspicuous before July. By the time of it’s ecological dominance in a site, most of the delicate native species have finished flowering and have paid in this year’s contribution to the seed bank. Given the conditions of habitat and timing, it is in many cases difficult to imagine what else would be able to grow there. The most robust argument put forth against balsam is that by dominating river banks in summer bank then dying back in the winter, they do not give a thick vegetative covering to the soil, which then washes away in the winter storms. Annual plants do certainly cause problems by withdrawing their soil support every winter, but it is a problem of all annual plants, both treasured native and imported villains. Balsam certainly causes a problem if it replaces perennial plants, but the real problem lies in what caused the perennials to disappear rather than the presence of a particular sort of annual plant.

These lines of evidence point to balsam’s success being due not to some innate marauding nature, but rather to its ability to thrive in habitats of our making. Every site does have a different history, but balsam tends to step in when delicate natives begin to disappear due to a sickness in the ecosystem. In cases like this, balsam may be the sticking plaster, barely managing to maintain the ecosystem in the face of collapse. To then come back in and try to remove a thriving community of balsam would be to invite the true villains, such as Japanese knotweed, to twist the system into their own reign of tyranny. Or even worse, maybe nothing would come after the balsam, and the soil would slip off into the river. We cannot recreate Eden once we have fallen, Biblically and ecologically speaking, therefore we should work with the world as it is now, and try to preserve its ecological exuberance.
Balsam is an exuberant plant, attracting inquisitive human hands and bees alike. Richard Mabey in his book Weeds makes reference to balsam’s vernacular name “bee bums”, and it is very apt. In a particularly musky patch opposite a casino on waste land in the centre of an English town I have seen almost every flower occupied by a bee at one time. They emerge from the jarringly orchid-like flowers whitened with the sheer weight of pollen they have picked up, as if they had lain out in snow fall. It is a sight of bold fecundity; nature decadent in it’s reproduction. It is hard to condemn something that so visibly thrums with life. It has been argued that the rich nectaries of balsam are a vulgar sideshow distracting the pollinators from native plants. But as the plant blooms after most of the precious wildflowers have already been pollinated, balsam may not reduce the fecundity of native populations significantly in much of it’s range. The bees clearly adore it’s nectar, and it is difficult to deny them this. It may be a much needed source of nectar when stocks begin to flag in the lead up to winter. And given current anxieties about the extinction of honey bees, it can only be hypocritical to condemn a plant for giving pollinators too much of a good thing.
I could never say I liked balsam. It is too much, too big and quick and smelly. It’s scent is like dried sweat on a t-shirt left out to dry into the sun, there is nothing floral in it. It is both imposingly large and paper-thin. It’s thin walled bamboo-like stem gives it a sense of effemerality, which is corroborated when the stems break and crash to the floor in the autumn, turning a once jungle-like thicket into a landscape like a village razed to the ground. But I have a respect of an opportunist, as in dire situations the alternative to an opportunist is not it’s fragile replacement but rather an vacuum, alien and detestable.


A Biological Sciences Reading List by a Library-Haunting Student

Thanks to a compulsive library habit, a hideously long Goodreads to-read list and a habit of monitoring the literary press for new releases, I’ve gained a lot of knowledge about popular bioscience books. Therefore when looking for reading lists to prepare for university interviews, I found the lists unsatisfactory. Many of those released by universities were clearly written over ten years ago and not updated, or were drawn up based on a well stocked university library, full of expensive and hard to find books. I’ve spent the past few years mainly falling in and out of books which I’ve found in libraries, in a rather haphazard way. At the end of this all, I thought I should put my experience to good use and compile a suggested, and very unofficial, reading list for anyone interest in studying Biology, maybe at Oxford or Cambridge, so you don’t have to stumble around like I did. These are the books which I have been using to prepare myself to start my degree in Biological Sciences at Oxford University, so I hope they will be of interest to others.

All the books listed are available in the Manchester Public Library system and/ or in my old school library, so it should be relatively easy to find these books in other public or school libraries.

Plant Sciences: as I call it, “The queen of biosciences”.

weeds mabey

  • Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation and Changed the Way We Think About Nature by Richard Mabey – Mabey is more of an old-fashioned general naturalist than the narrow specialists. He mixes knowledge of plants learned in the field, folklore and history with a modern ecological understanding to create wide-ranging and very engaging and enjoyable book on the plants some view as pests and others revere. When so much of biological education is very lab-based, Mabey’s books, I also recommend The Cabaret of Plants, encourage you to break out of the lab and try to work out what that thing growing out of the pavement is trying to do.

emerald planet

  • The Emerald Planet: How Plants Changed Earth’s History by David Beerling – A book on the pre-history of the plant world we see all around us. It is so easy to see plants as the green background to the interesting bits of nature that run fast and growl, but this book helps you consider plants as ecological engineers, that have shaped the planet in profound and fundamental ways.

lab girl

  • Lab Girl by Hope Jahren – If pushed, I might say this is my favourite book, certainly my favourite memoir. It is an unusual book in that it is a memoir by someone who isn’t famous. Instead, the book lives and dies on the strength of its writing, which is outstanding. Jahren is a plant geochemist, and the book recounts her journey through academia as a rare woman and a person with bipolar disorder. It is about the drive to discover what it is like to be a plant and to unpick their history through analytical methods, and the very strong relationship she has with her collaborator, the eccentric Bill. Before I start to gush about how important it is, I will say I have written more on it here, now go and read it.


mushroom money

  • Mushroom by Richard P. Money – A broad and entertaining look at the obscure and arcane ways of fungi, and the people who love them, as well as their vital contributions to ensuring that we are not waist high in rotting matter and can enjoy bread and wine.

Science and Society:


  • Inferior: How Science got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini – A balanced treatment of some of the historical and current research on sex differences, showing throughout that people tend to be more complicated than reductive, biased science can lead us to believe.

genes cells and brains

  • Genes, Cells and Brains: The Promethean Promises of the New Biology by Hilary Rose and Steven Rose – A more polemical book evaluating the claims of gene therapy, stem cell therapy and neuroscience to cure our ills and explain what we are, and refutes reductive explanations of ourselves. A book that shows the political underpinnings of scientific research and technologies.


  • Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine – On “neurosexism”, the prejudice that the brains of females and males are fundamentally different in a way that makes the binary sexes behave in stereotypical ways, and how this view relates to the research being done today, as well as a critique of the limits of what neuroimaging can reveal. A witty and well argued book, I’ve written more about it here.

mismeasure of man

  • The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould – The Great Gould himself, this book is about how the study of intelligence has made intelligence into a thing that can be measured, whether skull size or IQ, without actually relating to what we would call intelligence in every day life, as well as conveniently making Western educated white men come out on top.

Evolutionary Biology:


  • Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature by Nick Davies – The brood parasite behaviour of the European cuckoo will come up on any course on evolutionary biology or animal behaviour, most of that research is the fruit of Nick Davies crouching in the Fens and doing his careful experiments to elucidate why the birds and doing what they are doing, year after year. It reads like a thriller, the reader is asked to both try to solve an evolutionary puzzle and to try and work out how they themselves might prove it. I’ve written more about this here.

what evolution is

  • What Evolution Is by Ernst Mayr- A criminally underappreciated book. A clear and comprehensive look at the developments in evolutionary biology of the 20th century from the man who brought you allopatric speciation. In my opinion it should be treated on par with The Selfish Gene, especially as it deals with the matters of speciation and macroevolution that are largely missing from The Selfish Gene, which is more concerned with microevolution.

selfish gene

  • The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins – Worth reading as it encapsulates the neo-Darwinian, some would say reductionist, consensus which held sway in much of Biology for the last forty years, though there is also plenty to disagree with if you see it that way. Read for the clarity of the arguments, and then get into arguments with people about it.


  • The Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin – It’s easy to overlook actually reading The Origin if you’ve read a lot of modern work referring back to Darwin and know that outlines of his arguments. But actually reading The Origin allows you to appreciate Darwin’s thought processes and careful construction of arguments in the context of the intellectual environment he existed in, where many of the pieces of evolutionary theory were in place, but no one had joined them up. It is also interesting to see where Darwin went wrong, or more accurately was vague about, such as molecular basis of heredity.


  • Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution by Nick Lane –  A good book to dip into to fill in any gaps in your knowledge, it is both comprehensive and innovative, as is all of Lane’s writing. The ten “inventions” are: the origin of life, DNA, photosynthesis, sex, movement (i.e. the cytoskeleton), sight, hot blood, consciousness and death. I also recommend Lane’s The Vital Question, which is a more wide-ranging look on research into the origins of life, which Lane is involved in.

Genetics and Genomics

crack in creation

  • A Crack in Creation: The New Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg. Fresh off the press, this book is about the major development in gene editing, the CRISPR/ Cas9 system from the researchers who lead the way. I’ve written more about it here. 

the gene

  • The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee – A sprawling history of genetics from the earliest days of Mendel through the molecular genetics era and the genetic modification revolution, charting the shift from explaining heredity to manipulating it. The section on epigenetics research is poorly explained, however, so I would recommend instead…

epigenetics revolution

  • The Epigenetics Revolution by Nessa Carey – An important corrective to vague, slightly mystical or unduly provocative talk about epigenetics, it sets out the field as a logical step from any basic knowledge of genetics, genes can’t all ‘talk’ at the same time, so gene expression must be regulated so that a skin cell is different from a neuron. It covers the range of epigenetic research from biomedical to plant science in a clear manner with useful diagrams.

History of Science:

stalin scientists

  • Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph and Tragedy, 1905- 1953 by Simon Ings – A History of Science in the last years of Imperial Russia and the first half of the USSR, with a focus on the fabled suppression of Western Mendelian-Morganist genetics and the glorification of the claims of the charlatan Lysenko. Also discusses the work of Pavlov, Vavilov (a hero of plant science) and the cyberneticists (whose world we live in).

von humboldt

  • The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt The Lost Hero of Science by Andrea Wulf – von Humboldt is an overlooked figure, but pioneered the sort of broad ecological thinking which could link the flora on two mountain tops on either side of the Atlantic. Without him, Darwin likely would not have been able to connect his observation of nature to trace their underlying cause.



  • Survivors by Richard Fortey – About “living fossils”, and what they can tell us about the history of life. My favourite are the velvet worms, putative relatives of Hallucigenia.

wonderful life

  • Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould – More Gould. This is about the Burgess Shale anthropod fossils, which living in the middle of the Cambrian. Gould argues that the disparate forms in the assemblage represent “evolutionary dead ends”, though some more recently research suggests they are closely allied to modern forms. But more interestingly, Gould goes from this to suggest that the set of taxa we see in the world now as here largely due to chance. Replaying the tape of life would result in a very different world, we were not inevitable. Certainly thought provoking, contrast with Simon Conway Morris’ The Crucible of Creation.


  • Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution by Richard Fortey – Fortey spent many years in an obscure corner of the Natural History Museum in London, examining some very old fossils and using them to reconstruct past worlds. Fortey is a witty and clear writer and his enthusiasm for his subject is infectious.


variety of life

  • The Variety of Life: A Survey and Celebration of All the Creatures that Have Ever Lived by Colin Tudge – This book sorely needs a second edition, but the first from 2000 is an accessible introduction to taxonomy and cladistics in theory and in practice. You don’t have to read the whole thing (though it is very enjoyable to do so), but the initial sections on cladistics and Willi Hennig detail an important part of modern biology which gets very little popular discussion elsewhere.

Molecular Biology:

life on the edge

  • Life on the Edge: The Coming Age of Quantum Biology by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden – Though it sound sci-fi, quantum biology is simply the realization that quantum effects can influence the behaviour of biological molecules. An interesting, inter-disciplinary book.



  • Feral by Geroge Monbiot – On rewilding, the reintroduction of once-native animals to a region to try to restore some of the wildness we have robbed them of, such as returning wolves or lynx to certain remote forests of Britain.  The topic is still very controversial in conservation biology, and Monbiot draws on both conservation science and our connection to the wild world to support his position, therefore the book tends to polarise readers.


  • The Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts – About human-caused ecological disruption in the oceans, and what we can do to make amends. It is a topic that many can overlook in favour of the rainforests, so will definitely fill in some gaps in most people’s knowledge.



  • Spillover by David Quammen – I read this whilst reading a book about life in North Korea and they were equally terrifying. It deals the “spillover” events which tip a non-human animal disease into a human zoonotic epidemic, and suggests what the future could bring. Quammen makes the sometimes clinical world of epidemiology as compelling as a thriller.


  • The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee – Another one of Mukherjee’s epic histories of science, this one is on oncology and cancer research. US centric, but a thorough and well constructed narrative.

The Anthropocene:

the sixth extinction

  • The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert – On extinction in a world where human actions are coming to dominate the planet, Kolbert travels the world to explore how the ecological dynamics of the world are changing as the Anthropocene enters full swing.

the shock of the anthropocene

  • The Shock of the Anthropocene by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz – A critical look at the historical and environmental forces that got us into this mess, their overall message is that the Anthropocene was never inevitable, rather the environmental destruction we see was caused by choices made by those in power influenced by their ideological systems, and not due to individual human greed.

Systems Biology:

the music of life

  • The Music of Life by Bruce Noble – An antidote to The Selfish Gene, this book counter the claims of a reductionist biology with a look at the whole system, and how phenomena can emerge from all levels and feed back into the rest of the system, creating extraordinary biological complexity. An elegant and thought provoking book.

The Poison Chronicles: Bryony – Deadly Margins

I’ve written a blog post on White Bryony for the Manchester Museum Herbarium.

Herbology Manchester

Guest Post by Laura Cooper

WP_20170307_08_08_25_Pro Margin Illustrations from The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre. Image Source.

The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre is one of the most famous and beautiful illuminated manuscripts. It is a collection of prayers and psalms for each of the hours of the medieval religious day made for the personal use of the Queen of Navarre somewhere between 1328-1343. The book is lavishly and elegantly decorated with images of saints and angels framed by a naturalistic border. This curling foliage has been referred to as ivy, but was identified by Christopher de Hamel actually white bryony, Bryonia dioica.

Bryony is a notoriously poisonous plant, so the scenes the illuminator painted are far from idyllic. As de Hamel writes in his book Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts,“The world in the medieval margins is not a comfortable place, any more than the gilded life of Jeanne de…

View original post 418 more words

The Poison Chronicles: Calabar Bean – A Life-Saving Ordeal

Another of my posts on the Manchester Museum Herbarium blog, on when an ordeal can become a remedy.

Herbology Manchester

calabar-bean-1 Calabar beans and seed cases from the collection of the Manchester Museum Herbarium. 

Guest Post by Laura Cooper

For much of human history, people have sought to find a way to prove or disprove a person’s guilt. Today, we hope evidence and a fair trial will do this, but people have always wanted a quick and definitive way of doing this. This is where the idea of the trial by ordeal came in. Most people are familiar with the practice of dunking suspected witches in bodies of water in parts of 17th century Europe; if they floated they were guilty and if they sunk they were innocent. But in what was then called the Calabar region (now North-East Nigeria) in the 19th century, a particularly poisonous seed was used in these trials by ordeal. This plant, known as the Calabar bean, Physostigma venenosum, became notorious as a…

View original post 538 more words

The Poison Chronicles: Cyanide -Cassava’s Built in Pesticide

Another post on the Manchester Museum’s Herbarium blog, on cyanide and cassava.

Herbology Manchester

Guest Post by Laura Cooper

wp_20170109_11_56_21_proManihot esculenta leaf sewn onto this Herbarium sheet.

I remember hearing as a small child the rumour that swallowing a single apple seed would kill you. Whilst I later learnt that this was false, it is true that the cyanide in apple seeds means that theoretically, chewing a large number could cause poisoning.

Cyanide is a simple chemical produced by many organisms, often as an unwanted by-product. But cyanide is found in relatively high levels in many plant species, including the seeds of many common food plants, such as peaches, almonds, and legumes.

cassava Manihot esculenta tubers, sold as cassava or yuca. Source.

The cyanogenic plant I will focus on here is cassava, Manihot esculenta, also known as yucca. It’s tubers are a major carbohydrate source throughout the tropics due to its drought tolerance and ability to thrive in poor soil. It is probably most…

View original post 507 more words

The Poison Chronicles: Hemlock

I wrote a post about Hemlock for the Manchester Museum Herbarium Blog.

Herbology Manchester

wp_20170123_15_44_17_pro Herbarium Sheet of Conium maculatum from the Manchester Museum Herbarium

Guest Post by Laura Cooper

Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) is one of the most notorious of poisonous plants. It’s best known as the poison that killed the philosopher Socrates, and may even be indirectly responsible for the deaths of quail eaters, but even this species has been used as a medicine.

wp_20170123_15_44_31_proConium maculatum achenes from the Manchester Museum Herbarium

Conium maculatum is in the family Apiaceae. Many species in this family resemble hemlock as they possess white flowers in umbels, branches of the stem which form a flat surface, and pinnate leaves, resemble parsely (Petroselinum crispum) and wild carrot (Daucus carota). This has lead to foragers accidentally poisoning themselves, but most are put off by the “mousy” or foetid odour and bitter taste. This and red spots that appear on the base of the plant in spring…

View original post 519 more words

The Poison Chronicles: Deadly Nightshade — Herbology Manchester

Guest Post by Laura Cooper Binomials can be a pain to learn, but they often have a hidden poetry. Deadly nightshade’s common name stresses its notoriety as a poison. But it’s binomial, Atropa belladonna, is far more beautiful and apt. The genus name is derived from Atropus, one of the three Fates of Greek Mythology, […]

via The Poison Chronicles: Deadly Nightshade — Herbology Manchester