Before the ubiquitous impatiens of today, there were balsam flowers. Victorians loved these Asian imports in the early 20th century, but the flowers’ popularity waned as the interest in hybrid annuals grew after World War II. Today’s gardeners are bringing this heirloom back to the seed rack as they discover how easy and adaptable it is.
As expected for an old-fashioned favorite, Impatiens balsamina goes by several charming nicknames, including touch-me-not, jumping Betty, and lady’s slipper. However you ask for it at the garden center, keep in mind that balsam plants are tender annuals that complete their life cycle in one season.
Balsam plants grow about 12 to 24 inches tall, making them suitable for the middle of the summer flower border. The plants grow well in both sun and shade. The best site offers some protection from afternoon sun, which may cause some browning of the foliage.
The flowers resemble small camellias or the double hybrids of impatiens. However, unlike hybrid impatiens, these come true from seed. Flowers are produced along the stem, but their vivid colors of pink, white, red, purple, and rose to allow them to be seen easily among the foliage. Leaves are dark green, lance-shaped, and slightly toothed.
You probably won’t find transplants of balsam sold at the nursery, but you can start this forgiving annual from seed. The seeds sprout in as little as four days in moist soil at 70 F. Start them indoors about eight weeks before your average last frost, planning for about 60 days from seed to first bloom. Light hastens germination, so don’t cover the seeds with soil.
When soil temperatures begin to warm, usually as the average nighttime temperatures reach about 60 degrees, you can harden off your balsam seedlings and place them in the garden. Plant them about a foot apart in groups of five to seven or more for greatest impact.
Like cosmos and cleome, balsam reseeds prolifically. Plant these three flowers together, and you will have a self-perpetuating garden that attracts butterflies and sphinx moths. Plant a large stand of balsam in your cottage garden to give it that heirloom authenticity. Balsam flowers grow well in the container garden. Their upright habit complements trailing flowers like portulaca or verbena.
Keep balsam plants consistently moist throughout the growing season. They will continue to bloom throughout your worst heat waves, but only if they have enough to drink.
Fertilize with a balanced flower fertilizer every two weeks. The form of the plants makes deadheading nearly impossible, but removing seed heads would deny you the inevitable volunteers that will grace your garden next year.
If you want to collect seeds at the end of the season to plant in other areas, keep a baggie very close, as the ripe seedheads will burst and distribute their contents everywhere when you pinch them.
For a lovely garden, look for these varieties and mixes:
- Blackberry Trifle: Seek out this unusual sport with purple and white variegated petals.
- Bush Mix: Unnamed balsam plants may get lanky by season’s end, but the Bush Mix stays compact and full.
- Camellia Flower Mix: Lushly petaled flowers give the look of camellias to gardeners in every growing region.
- Tom Thumb Mix: Averaging 8 to 10 inches in height, choose this variety for the edge of the border or the container garden.