Growing Impatiens Flowers

Different colors of impatiens flowers mixed together.

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Impatiens is one of the most popular annual flowers, due to their brightly color blooms and their ability to grow in shady areas. The most commonly grown cultivars are short plants, attaining a height of not more than 1 foot. Some types, such as the 'Super Elfin' series, stay much shorter. Impatiens flowers come in a variety of colors, including white, red, pink, violet, coral, purple, and (a relative newcomer) yellow.

Taxonomy and Plant Type for Impatiens Flowers

There are many kinds of impatiens flowers (sometimes misspelled as "impatience" or "impatients"). Plant taxonomy classifies one of the more popular species as Impatiens walleriana, which includes the series of 'Super Elfin' ​cultivars. "Busy Lizzy" is one of the common names for this plant (the origin of which presumably lies in how "busy" this prolific bloomer is at producing blossoms), although this is a case where the scientific genus name is so widely used that it has virtually become a common name. Impatiens plants belong to the balsam family.

Impatiens flowers take their name from the Latin, impatiens, meaning "impatient." They are so called because their ripe seed pods will sometimes burst open from even a light touch (as if they were impatient to open). This characteristic is especially apparent in a relative named "jewelweed," which is indigenous to eastern North America.

Growing Impatiens

Grow impatiens flowers in well-drained soil enriched with hummus. Although they can, with sufficient water, be grown in partial sun in northerly regions, their great virtue is that they thrive in the shade. In fact, they're among the relatively few readily available, inexpensive flowering plants that will put on a great floral display even when grown in full shade.

If your impatiens plants start looking leggy late in the summer, use scissors to trim off the top third of their vegetation. This will promote the emergence of new blooms and improve the overall appearance of the plants. One possible cause of legginess is over-fertilization. This plant does not need to be fertilized very much; if you do wish to give it a boost, a slow-release fertilizer (applied at planting time in late spring or early summer) is best.

The impatiens commonly sold at nurseries in North America are hybrids and are treated as annual plants. They are native to tropical Africa—where they are perennials—and are easily damaged by frosts. In northern United States and areas with similarly cold winters, the traditional time for planting them is Memorial Day, when the danger of frost has passed.

Uses for Impatiens in the Yard

Impatiens flowers have long been one of the dominant bedding plants in North America, especially for shaded areas. They are also used in container gardens, ranging from hanging baskets to window boxes. Many growers prefer the "New Guinea" type (I. hawkeri) for use in containers, considering it to be a showier plant, especially in terms of its foliage (New Guineas can also take a little more sunshine than can the walleriana species).

Perhaps the biggest advantage of the New Guinea type is its resistance to impatiens downy mildew (IDM). According to Michelle Grabowski, at the University of Minnesota Extension, this disease is caused by a pathogen called Plasmopara obducens. In the wake of the spread of this disease, switching over to New Guineas became a no-brainer.

A relatively recent hybrid put out by the folks at Sakata, going by the brand name, SunPatiens®, is said to be suitable for both full sun and partial shade. Suzanne Klick at the University of Maryland Extension states that SunPatiens® is resistant to impatiens downy mildew.

Are Impatiens Overused?

Impatiens flowers have much to offer, including shade-tolerance, long-lasting blooms, and brightly colored blossoms that come in a variety of colors. So what's not to like? If there's a knock on them in some circles, it's that they're so common: impatiens is a victim of its own success.

But don't let the claim that this or that plant is "overused" hold too much sway over your buying decisions as an amateur gardener. If a particular color of impatiens helps fill a need in a flower border or anywhere else, especially in shaded areas, use it!