We are lucky to live by Sandwell Valley a local nature reserve with an RSPB centre and the River Tame running through it. The valley is just 5 minutes walk from our house and we often go walking there to see what flowers and animals we can find. My daughter loves to find the flowers, take a photograph and then come home to see if she can identify which flower they are. One of the wildflowers currently out in force in the highly invasive (but beautiful!) Indian or Himalayan Balsam……Or you may know this as Policemans Helmet, introduced in the early 19th century from the Himalayas Indian Balsam can often be found growing on waste land and by stream beds, producing up to 800 seeds at a time it is now classed as an invasive plant and it is illegal to plant it anywhere in the wild. It does however provide a source of nectar to bees and insects from early summer right through to Autumn, and of all the invasive species, I do think it is one of the prettiest.
The pretty flowers are completely edible, and can be crystallised for cakes, or used as decoration in salads. They also look beautiful frozen into ice cubes – you can even use the stem as a straw, as it is completely hollow!
The best part about the Balsam? The seeds are completely edible, and the more seeds we eat the less it spreads, so this is a plant you can forage with a clear conscience.
Immature seed pods (before they reach the ‘explosive’ stage – and they do literally explode – it is very exciting to collect them with kids) are edible whole, and can be cooked like radish pods or mangetout and used in stir-fries and curries. The seeds will usually start to appear late summer, so keep an eye on your local plants once you have spotted them.
The seeds themselves can be eaten raw and have a nutty taste that to me is a cross between hazelnuts or walnuts. You can collect the seeds by covering the whole seed head with flowers and all in a bag. Touching the seeds through the bag will make the seeds explode into it – again, kids love this! Both unripe cream coloured seeds and the dark brown/black ripe seeds are edible. Seeds can be eaten whole, toasted and ground to make flour, crushed and used as a spice or substituted in any recipe that calls for hazelnuts. I like them toasted and sprinkled over a salad, with feta cheese or goats cheese etc
They are excellent baked in cakes, breads and biscuits and make a welcome addition to soup, stews and curries. When collecting the seeds, you need not be too particular in removing all bits of the seed pods that you collect with them as the pods are edible. The seeds require a period of cold to activate from dormancy, as a result mature seeds (if carefully picked over) can be stored in an air-tight jar as a store-cupboard standby. They are useful for substituting in cakes instead of nuts for those with nut allergies and ground himalayan balsam seeds can be substituted for ground almonds. There really is no reason not to eat this plant, as every seed eaten by us is one less plant in the wild.
Some other wildflowers currently in bloom, early July….Oxeye Daisies, Birdsfoot Trefoil and Purple Vetch.