With few demands on gardener's time, impatiens turns out to be annual hit

May 29, 1993|By Ann Egerton | Ann Egerton,Contributing Writer

If you're planting impatiens in your garden this spring, you're not alone. The flower is the hottest seller at the Country Plant Store, a wholesale nursery on East Joppa Road, says owner Bud Gahs. "And why not? It's trouble-free."

Mr. Gahs says impatiens "blooms its head off," comes in an array of great colors and sizes, from elfin (very small and low to the ground) up to about 2 feet, and is free of bugs and disease. "Not much bothers them," says Mr. Gahs, "but they need a lot of water and they don't like the cold. One hard frost will knock them out."

The most demanding gardener can't complain about that, nor about their tendency to wilt in all-day summer sun, for at about $2.50 for a pack of six (more in individual pots), thriving from late spring until fall, that's a lot of bloom for the buck. Lately some strains have been bred that have greater tolerance of the sun. Impatiens plants thrive in pots, window boxes, hanging baskets and in the ground and are the only annual that blooms vigorously in the shade. They are easy to transplant (with a ball of soil), often reseed themselves and have a tendency to form a rounded mound as they grow, so they always have a tidy look. They don't last long as cut flowers.

Bobbie Radebaugh, who works at the family-owned Radebaugh's nursery in Towson, adds that they make a most satisfactory house plant. "I remember impatiens when I began working at Radebaugh's 52 years ago," she says. Gerrard Mowdrey, chief horticulturist at Cylburn, saw them for the first time in a park in Gettysburg over 20 years ago, but they "were leggier and didn't bloom as profusely as the ones we grow now right here at Cylburn's and at Rash Field." Mrs. Radebaugh claims that geraniums edge out impatiens in sales at the nursery, but Jane Alling at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society says that the impatiens, a perennial in the tropics, passed the petunia as this region's favorite bedding annual in the early '80s.

Gardeners rave that unlike other annuals, such as petunias and zinnias, impatiens blooms don't have to be cut off. "The blossoms drop off very discreetly when they die, and that's that," observes Ruxton gardener Barbara Hansen. But as the plant gets older and more established, a seedpod often forms after the petals drop from a flower. As the pod gets larger, its skin becomes a little translucent and the slightest touch makes it explode, sending seeds every which way. Wild relatives jewelweed and touch-me-not behave the same way.

The characteristic of the seedpod's seeming eagerness to spread its seeds is why the plant is called impatiens, James Underwood Crockett explains in the Time/Life "Encyclopedia of Gardening: Annuals" (impatiens is Latin for impatient). He adds that it's a little harder to explain why the flower is also called Patient Lucy.

Tracing the origins of impatiens was like deciphering the Rosetta stone. Jerry Rafats at the National Agricultural Library in Beltsville said there are about 600 species of impatiens in the world, scattered around Europe, Asia, Indonesia, Africa and Madagascar. About six are indigenous to North and Central America. According to Ms. Alling, there are two species of impatiens, which is a genus of the Balsaminaceae family. (You do remember your high school botany, don't you?) One is balsamina, also called lady-slipper or garden balsam, which was introduced in North America from the East Indies and which is not in great demand. Their blooms run up the stem. The other is wallerana, the flower that has become such a garden staple in just the last 10 or 12 years, which used to be broken up into two subspecies, sultanii and holstii. A third subspecies also under the heading of wallerana is called peter siana and is wild, such as the variety jewelweed. Sultana is a traditional name for impatiens; it's what many think is the original pink one with five petals, a spur behind the flower and alternate smooth serrated leaves. Holstii are the other colors of hybrids that have been produced. "When people ask us for sultanii we know they want impatiens," says Mrs. Radebaugh.

Impatiens were introduced into Europe in 1896 from Zanzibar, an island off the east coast of Africa that is now a part of Tanzania. (The New Guinea impatiens, with its exotically colored foliage, comes from western Africa and requires many hours of sun a day to bloom.) It's thought that impatiens were introduced into this country about a year after they were introduced into Europe, since Americans and Europeans exchanged plants actively even then.

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