Tough shade-lovers bloom all summer

Impatiens is now a garden favorite

it's easy to maintain and wildly colorful

In the Garden

March 21, 2004|By Nancy O'Donnell | Nancy O'Donnell,New York Times News Service

If I called them Busy Lizzies, Patient Lucies, Sultanas or Patient Plants, would you have an inkling of what I'm talking about?

Chances are that not too many gardeners would. They are all passe names for what is now considered America's favorite bedding plant -- impatiens.

A relative newcomer to the shade garden, Impatiens wallerana is most commonly referred to today as simply impatiens.

We need only go back to the early 1940s, when Claude Hope, the man many regard as the godfather of today's impatiens, began a personal 20-year challenge to develop a strain for home gardens.

By the mid-1960s, Hope had successfully produced a crossbred plant that garnered horticultural attention. He introduced the 'Elfin' series, which offered gardeners eight different colors of compact, multibranching impatiens.

His discovery opened the door to today's varieties: 'Shady Lady,' 'Sunny Lady,' 'Accent,' 'Bruno' and 'Swirl,' to name just a few.

In addition to I. wallerana, there are two other species commonly sold that deserve a quick peek.

Impatiens hawkeri, or the New Guinea impatiens, was discovered in the early 1970s by botanists visiting the country of the same name. They were intrigued by its larger flower and variegated foliage with a more pronounced texture.

In 1989, a robust orange New Guinea impatiens by the name of 'Tango' took the gardening world by storm and was named an All-America Selection.

New Guinea impatiens is propagated by stem cuttings rather than seed. For this reason, it is often sold in larger, individual pots, which raises the price. It will run you a few more cents, but it is worth it.

Impatiens balsamina, aka garden balsam, is rarely thought of as a part of the genus of Impatiens, but it is. The blossoms line the vertical stems at every leaf axil, instead of being bunched at the end of the stem.

It's an old-fashioned favorite, which dates to the gardens of Thomas Jefferson. Look for it early at your favorite greenhouse as it isn't as widely grown as its two cousins are.

But, back to I. wallerana, which by the way is very well-mannered. A nonstop bloomer right through until frost and -- are you ready for this? -- it deadheads itself, which means it is maintenance-free when it comes to preening.

Impatiens' range of colors is remarkable, although it hasn't fully conquered yellow. It comes in solids, bicolors, swirls and with contrasting or accented center eyes. The flower can be single or double, and the plants can cascade over the edge of a wall, splash out of a pot or stand at attention around the base of a tree.

Impatiens prefers the coolness of a shady afternoon, but newer introductions such as 'Sunny Lady' are more heat- and sun-tolerant.

If you plan on growing your own, you need to start the seeds indoors roughly eight weeks before you plan to plant them outside.

Impatiens shows damage from even the slightest frost, so even if you buy the plants early, hide your trowel until at least mid-April.

When you do plant, pinch off the existing flowers to give the roots a head start; your plants will be bigger for this, I promise.

Plant them in an organically rich soil that drains well yet doesn't dry out, with a pH from 6.5 to 6.8. Locate them in a shady or semi-shady (morning sun) location where their roots have plenty of soil to keep them cool and moist.

Make no mistake, impatiens is a shade-lover and will let you know it. Faded foliage, mid-day wilt and poor flowering are all signs of too much sun and heat.

If planting in containers, use large ones. If planting around the base of a tree where roots leave little soil or moisture to share, pot them in gallon-sized or larger plastic pots with drainage holes, then plant the pot in among the tree roots. With this method, they'll have their own soil and water zone.

Feed them weekly with a teaspoon of water-soluble fertilizer diluted in one gallon of water, and they'll reward you handsomely all summer long.

Make no mistake, impatiens is a shade-lover and will let you know it.

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