Impatiens Flowers

Common, Shade-Tolerant "Annual"

Different colors of impatiens flowers mixed together.
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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.

The impatiens commonly sold at nurseries in North America are hybrids and treated as annual plants. They are native to tropical Africa -- where they are perennials -- and easily damaged by frosts (which is why here, in the North, the traditional time for planting them is Memorial Day, when a danger of frost has passed). The plants belong to the balsam family.

Description, Sun and Soil Requirements, Plant Care

The widely grown cultivars of impatiens flowers are typically short plants, attaining a height of not more than 1 foot. Some, such as the 'Super Elfin' series, stay much shorter (thus their popularity -- and their name). Impatiens flowers come in a variety of colors, including white, red, pink, violet, coral and purple. Even a yellow cultivar has recently been developed.

Grow impatiens flowers in well-drained soil enriched by humus. 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 they start looking leggy late in the summer, introduce them to a pair of scissors, as trimming off the top third of their vegetation will not only promote the emergence of new blooms but also improve the overall appearance of the plants. One possible cause for 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.

Uses in the Yard, Downy Mildew Disease, Origin of the Name

Impatiens flowers have 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). But 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.

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," indigenous to eastern North America. (see below).

Jewelweed: Impatiens Flowers of the North

Although jewelweed shares some similarities with the impatiens flower sold at nurseries, most gardeners would not confuse the two (at maturity). The former, a weed, easily becomes gangly-looking. Its blooms, furthermore, are totally different from those on the impatiens used in landscaping. But they do both have telltale juicy stems.

There are two types of jewelweed:

  • Spotted jewelweed or "spotted touch-me-not" (I. capensis) is orange
  • Pale jewelweed or "pale touch-me-not" (I. pallida) is yellow

The nickname, "touch-me-not" refers, again, to the tendency of the ripe seed pod to burst apart at the slightest touch.

Jewelweed is not usually considered an attractive plant. But more significant than its appearance is its use as a natural treatment for poison ivy.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt: 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. It's important not to let other people dictate your plant purchase decisions for you. Garden snobs who write snarky blogs may look down their noses at the idea of planting so-called overused plants such as impatiens, but remember this: such gardeners are writing for each other, to impress each other, to out-snark each other.

The way I see it, people who proclaim, with an air of authority, that such-and-such a plant is overused are trying to limit my gardening choices. They think that I will cower before their high and mighty pronouncement and avoid planting the specimen in question, for fear of being perceived as a low-class gardener.

They don't know me.

Before purchasing a plant, I evaluate it objectively, on its own merits, and in the context of my goals and my own design needs. If a particular color of impatiens, for example, helps fill a need for me in a flower border, and if the growing conditions there are right for it, I may well use it. The question is whether I like the flower and whether it "works" for that spot, not how many other people grow the same plant. Applying the "overused" logic (or lack thereof) to every plant purchase would entail renouncing some of the world's most beautiful plants.