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Picture of red, pink and white impatiens flowers used as bedding plants.

Picture of red, pink and white impatiens flowers used as bedding plants.

David Beaulieu

Taxonomy of Impatiens Flowers:

There are many kinds of impatiens flowers (sometimes misspelled as "impatience" or "impatients"). Plant taxonomy classifies one of the more popular groups of impatiens flowers 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.

Plant Type:

The impatiens flowers commonly sold at nurseries in North America are hybrids and treated as annual plants. They are native to tropical Africa and easily damaged by frosts.

Characteristics:

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.

Sun and Soil Requirements for Impatiens Flowers:

Grow impatiens flowers in well-drained soil enriched by humus. Although impatiens flowers can, with sufficient water, be grown in partial sun in northerly regions, their great virtue is that they thrive in the shade.

Care for Impatiens Flowers:

If they start looking leggy late in the summer, trim off the top third of their vegetation. This will promote the emergence of new impatiens flowers, plus the plants will look better overall.

Uses for Impatiens Flowers:

Impatiens flowers are 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. In this capacity, some growers prefer the "New Guinea" type, considering it to be a showier plant (especially in terms of its foliage). New Guineas can also take a little more sunshine.

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.

Origin of the Name for Impatiens Flowers:

Impatiens flowers take their name from the Latin, impatiens, "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, one would never confuse the two (at maturity).

There are two types of jewelweed:

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

The Ever-Popular Impatiens Flowers: Familiarity Breeds Contempt:

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 flowers are a victim of their own success.

As I argued in a blog post on so-called "overused plants," however, 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 "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.

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