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An unwelcome new plant in my garden

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Goldfinch feeding on niger seeds

Callie Jon

We Merlins keep our garden as a nature reserve and have fed the visiting birds for many years. A few years ago we decided to try to increase the range of birds by obtaining a bird feeder with small holes, which we filled with niger seed purchased from our local garden centre. (An alternative name is nyjer, patented by seed suppliers who are worried that niger is too close to the racial slur nigger.)

The niger seed is small, about 3mm x 0.5mm, and is said to be rich in oils. Our new feeder was successful in attracting finches, principally goldfinches, which arrive in a small flock and fight over the best feeding spot.

Last year, I noticed a large number of tiny seedlings immediately below the feeder and, as is my wont, allowed a few of them to grow to maturity to see what the flowers were like. The plants initially looked like supermarket cress (which, incidentally, is not actually cress but oilseed rape). They grew to be rather straggly plants and a few produced a yellow, daisy-like flower.

Niger seed is the seed of Guizotia abyssinica, an annual and a member of the Asteraceae family. The species originates in Ethiopia and other parts of East Africa, but is widely grown in India for its oil and also for export to the US and Europe as a bird seed constituent.

The Sussex Botanical Recording Society’s Newsletter for May 2003 reports the finding of a number of specimens of G abyssinica in various gardens on the south coast and also in flower beds on Brighton seafront. Other reports indicate that the plant has become established all along the south coast of England.

The US requires that the seed of G abyssinica be heat-treated to “devitalise” it before sale as bird seed. However, this seems not to be a requirement in the UK and perhaps it should be. The Merlins have now had two batches of niger seed that have obviously been viable, to judge from the number of seedlings that have germinated and been carefully eradicated.

A spokesman from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds stated that it sources as many constituents as possible of the bird seed it sells from UK farms, but some items, such as peanuts and niger seed, have to be imported.

It is one thing to have wheat and oats occasionally springing up in my flower beds as a result of feeding the wild birds, but I am not happy at introducing an alien species. The solution is to be both vigilant and active with the hoe.

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