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IMPATIENS SEEM EAGER TO SOLVE PROBLEMS

Flowers for my garden always need to solve problems, so I happily include impatiens. The National Garden Bureau has designated 1995 as "The Year of the Impatiens." These beautiful, versatile plants are easy to grow and are the most popular bedding plants in America. Although they are relatively new to cultivation, they have taken our gardens by storm.

Known by several common names including "Busy Lizzy," "Touch-Me-Not" and "Blooming Idiot," Impatiens is both the genus and the common name. The name fits because the plant truly is impatient. The tiny seed pods ripen and burst open with the slightest touch as the plant impatiently scatters its seeds to the wind.Impatiens arrived in the western world in 1896. Dr. John Kirk, a British physician and naturalist, went with Dr. Livingstone on his African expeditions and later was a government official to Zanzibar. He collected impatiens and other plants. The scientific name, Impatiens sultani in honor of the sultan of Zanibar, was later changed to Inpatiens wallerana for Dr. Horace Waller. He was a missionary who worked with Livingstone and published his journals.

Early impatiens were open-pollinated, producing mixed flower colors. When I grew these plants, they produced no flowers, so I am very appreciative of the extensive hybridization that created beautiful new varieties.

Fortunately, plant breeders realized impatiens had great potential. From these early nondescript flowers, 15 different solid colors, five colors with white star patterns, and three picotee bi-colors have been created. Breeders continue to look for even more unusual, desirable kinds of plants.

Impatiens are categorized by height, flower size, flower form, flower color and foliage color. Plant height and flower size are related since the largest plants produce the largest flowers. Dwarf plants are 8 to 10 inches high, medium are 10 to 12 inches and tall are from 12 to 24 inches.

Flower diameter ranges from 1 to 2 inches. Flowers are single, semi-double or fully double blooms that resemble tiny roses. Colors include reds, oranges, scarlets, roses, salmons, pinks, orchid violets, whites and lavender blues. Adding the star and picotee patterns creates an almost endless palette of blossoms. Some new varieties have dark bronze leaves to contrast with the bright flower colors.

A second class of hybrid impatiens from seed was introduced in 1989, as the "New Guinea Impatiens." These wonderful performers look like plants straight from a tropical rain forest. Although their journey was indirect, they offer wonderful new and interesting flowers.

Impatiens are great problem solvers because they are the showiest and easiest to grow shade-loving flowers. Avoid planting them under shrubs or other areas of deep shade. They thrive in filtered or partial shade. Ideal light is the kinder, gentler, morning sun, but protect them from the brunt of the afternoon heat. Newer varieties are much more tolerant of sunshine. Delay planting until danger of frost is past.

Impatiens are subject to serious diseases in the greenhouse, but I observe few problems in the garden. The major disease problem is Rhizoctonia, which can be partially controlled by plant rotation.

The only insect pest I've noticed are a few aphids. If predators don't control them, use an insecticide, a strong stream of water, or insecticidal soap. Spider mites are usually a problem when impatiens are planted in hot, dry, sunny areas. Avoid these locations and mites will probably leave your plants alone. Slugs and snails may attack transplants. Follow a diligent and consistent program to keep these pests at bay.

Once established in the garden, impatiens require little care. One major problem is overwatering. Because the plants grow in the shade and are tropical, many gardeners overwater them. Rain does not hurt the plants or the flowers, but water-logged soils encourage fungal diseases. Plants will wilt quickly with insufficient water so irrigate as needed.

Add a little fertilizer to get plants growing, but avoid excessive nitrogen. Over fertilized plants become long and leggy and produce fewer flowers.

These hybrid horticultural wonders are the right choice for shady gardens and may add color to many sunny locations. If you've not tried new varieties and colors, plant some this year. Although the flowers are a far cry from their African ancestors, these newly created blossoms will add that extra sparkle this season.