Invasive species strangling our forests being tackled - by using them to flavour gin

samantha farmer
Samantha Farmer's arts and crafts business uses local materials including invasive plants. -Credit:Samantha Farmer

An invasive alien plant species wreaking havoc in the Scottish countryside is now being harvested to make booze.

The Himalayan Balsam plant is being used to flavour gin by Samantha Farmer, who runs the crafts store Highland Magic Fibre Arts.

Samantha takes problem plants like Himalayan balsam to use for her products. She also uses the problem plants to create dye for her handcrafted woollen goods such as scarves and ponchos.

Samantha, who lives near Loch Ness, began experimenting last year with balsam-infused gin - with delicious and colourful results.

Initially coming out a warm golden colour, once tonic is added to the gin it turns the drink a vibrant pink.

Samantha said: “My goal is to use as many local materials as I possibly can and I’ve gotten into using invasives because they’re prolific and there’s not really a great use for them.

“Last year I started experimenting with Himalayan balsam.

“They have these lovely pink flowers that have a lot of nectar. That can be a bit of a problem because the bees are so attracted to them that they avoid other plants.

“So getting in there and removing the blossoms, I created an infused gin which was really lovely.

balsam gin
Himalayan balsam turns gin from golden to pink once tonic is added. -Credit:Samantha Farmer
Samantha Farmer
Samantha Farmer of Highland Magic Fibre Arts, wearing a balsam-dyed scarf. -Credit:Samantha Farmer

She added: “The cool part was when you actually infuse the flowers, the gin turns a golden honey colour so you don’t get the pretty pink colour right away.

“But after you’ve infused the petals for about a day and then strained them off, once you add your tonic to the gin, it turns it back to the pink colour that the flowers are - sort of a magic trick.”

Her husband works in the distilling business - with hopes the experiment could lead to a bigger batch of the balsam-infused gins getting made this year.

However, there are strict rules around the handling of the invasive non-native plant to avoid transporting seeds, given Himalayan balsam can spread so devastatingly quickly, with a special licence required.

The bright pink flowers can grow up to two metres tall - and in doing so, can crowd out native plants as well as cause riverbank erosion, raising flood risks.

Ross Armstrong of Woodland Trust Scotland on his fact-finding mission to the Mekong Delta.
Ross Armstrong of Woodland Trust Scotland on his fact-finding mission to the Mekong Delta. -Credit:Ross Armstrong/Woodland Trust Scotland

With this week marking Invasive Non-Native Species (INNS) Week, Ross Watson of Woodland Trust Scotland said finding alternative uses for these damaging plants could be key to helping communities tackle them and protect native nature.

Ross travelled to the Mekong Delta in Cambodia last year through the Churchill Fellowship to see how they tackle problem species - with another fact-finding mission in the Balkans planned this summer.

He told the Record: “In Cambodia, one project was looking at water hyacinth - one of the most invasive species of any kind globally.

“It doubles in size every fortnight, it’s an incredibly invasive thing and it’s all over the Mekong.

“But there were really ingenious communities harvesting this stuff and turning it into products like baskets and bags and doormats and utilising it as a product that they can then generate income from.”

Other notorious non-native species known for strangling Scotland’s trees and fauna include Japanese knotweed, rhododendron and giant hogweed - but all can be put to other uses.

Ross said local businesses like Samantha’s showed how communities could get involved in solving the invasive plants crisis by finding innovative solutions.

He said the gin was a “very Instagrammable, very appealing product that could be utilised as a way of harvesting balsam”.

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