April 19, 2005 > IMPATIENS
by Pat Kite
I haven't the foggiest idea what is sprouting in much of my spring garden. Come winter doldrums, I always cheer myself up by optimistically buying a plethora of seed packets. Sometimes something grows, providing snail and slug fodder. Mostly I've had the pleasure of seed packet sowing and not much else. However, occasionally, something survives, and, much to my surprise, multiplies cheerfully. Such is Impatiens walleriana, alternately known as "Busy Lizzie," "Touch Me Not," "Balsam," "Snapweed," and, in long-ago texts, "Lady's Slipper" for the appearance of its one-inch flowers.
Unlike many garden plants named for discovering scientists, the Impatiens moniker comes from its seed pod habits. The older the container pod, the more it curls up tightly. Touching the pod causes it to spew its contained seeds impatiently all over the site. I started with one purchased Impatiens a few years ago. After its spring-summer bloom had ended, I shook out the pods hither and thither in the garden. Now young impatiens are popping up all over the place. They may have red, white, violet, pink, salmon or orange small flowers, and everybody who sees them thinks I have some special talent. But the plant is doing all the Busy Lizzie work.
There are over 800 different types of Impatiens. Aside from the ubiquitous very busy Lizzie, only about a dozen are seen in American gardens. According to one tale, Lizzie was originally collected in Zanzibar back in 1865. The collector, a John Kirk, was a British consul in Zanzibar. He had many adventures, including having previously gone to Africa with the famous explorer Dr. Livingstone. About that hazardous voyage he commented, "Dr. Livingstone is out of his mind!" I love stories about plants and their people. It is like entering a new and exciting world via flowers, leaves, seeds and roots.
You can buy a packet of Busy Lizzie seeds and most should take if you don't let them dry out. A more sophisticated Impatiens is the New Guinea hybrids, easily purchased in small pots. Well cared for, the New Guinea hybrids are perennials, coming back each year from their rooted base. They have multicolored leaves as well as jolly flowers and look quite nice massed in pots on a wind-free patio. If you hunt around, you might even be able to find Impatiens capensis, an American native also called Jewelweed and Lady's Earrings. This is more of a wild flower, gets rather tall and can get carried away with its multiplying. Native Americans used the juice from this plant's flower sac to soothe poison ivy rash and treat athlete's foot. Modern testing has verified some fungicide properties.
In general, Impatiens like semi-sun. All varieties like to be watered, and will remind you of this by wilting when neglected. Fortunately, if you promptly water, the plant usually perks up right away. Put them in now and you'll have flowers into fall. Impatiens are good in the garden, in pots, on patios and terraces, and some types in hanging baskets. They are among my garden favorites for easy care. Try one; its impatient seeds may busily join you for many years.