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Growing Patience With My Impatiens

Gardening offers us a unique opportunity to grow patience when maybe we have little or none.  Right now, I’m practicing patience while growing certain plants, especially African and New Guinea Impatiens.  Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m what they call in marketing, an early adopter.  Show me something novel or new, and I’m drawn to it, like a magnet to metal — I’ve just got to have it.  This behavior even extends to the garden, where almost always, the newest, the most unusual, or exotic, somehow finds its way to my shopping cart with each trip to the garden center or nursery.

So there they were calling my pocket’s name, the moment I walked into Home Depot, a whole display of the nation’s number one bedding plant each spring — Impatiens — of all sorts of colors.  This year, I like to think of my gardening efforts as international.  Some of my tomato plants are heirloom Johnson tomatoes, from Germany.  Others are Ukranian Russian varieties.  My oregano is Greek, and now thanks to impulse buying — my Impatiens and Violets are runaways from Africa and New Guinea.

The minute I saw the first batch of Impatiens at the front of the garden center, all I could think of was the miracle that must have brought them to us from so many thousands of miles away from their native damp Usambara Mountains, in far off Tanzania.  This area, is known to be the original home of most of the garden Impatiens we know today.  Naturally, I just had to bring them home.

Impatiens (also commonly known as Busy Bizzie, Patience plant, or Touch-me-not) have a unique and interesting history.  They are also native to other parts of Africa, the Pacific Island of New Guinea, and parts of Asia.  For the most part, they look nothing like the plants who were first discovered around 1896.  They don’t even have the same name, for originally they were called Sultanas.  They got this name from the Sultan of Zanzibar, solely because it was his cool and moist lands upon which they were discovered.  

How they were discovered, all has it’s roots in the politics and history of global powers in another era.  The then ruling Khalifa ibn Sa’id, the Sultan of Zanzibar, a man who has the historical distinction of largely being responsible for abolishing slavery in his country, opened the door for their discovery.  Under his control, was a substantial area of the east African coast, then known as Zani.  This was where the major trading routes laid, extending all the way to the Congo River.  In clandestine meetings with British and German officials, he essentially gave away or was robbed of many of his land possessions. 

In doing so, with the influx of European officials now living and in charge of these lands, appeared a certain Baron St. Paul-Illaire, who became the governor of the Usambara district, of the then German East Africa.  He was an amateur botanist, who collected seeds and specimens, often sending them to his father, who had handed down to him a keen interest in botany.  This is where another foreigner, first discovered African Violets, which by-the-way, aren’t even remotely in the plant family of true violets — they just look like them.  The African Violet is also another plant that originates from this same region of mountains. 

Now, if you’ve never been to the different parts of Africa, you probably aren’t conscious that it isn’t always either desert or vast grasslands, where elephants, lions, giraffes, or zebras roam.  This region, stretching from Kenya to Zanzania, is where you’ll also find Mt. Kilimanjaro, and our talented online friend and author, whom some of us know as Cindy Vine.  It’s a vast region of unique growing conditions that are both humid and damp inside of a region that is otherwise dry, an anomaly in nature.

Anyway, getting back to Baron St. Paul-Illaire’s father, he gave the seeds of the Impatiens to a friend, who just happened to be the Director of Berlin’s Royal Botanic Gardens.   There they were grown and shared, and before much longer, the seeds and plants were found in gardens all over Europe.

By 1925, they’d made their way to Los Angeles, California, where a nursey (Armacost and Royston) decided to grow thousands of seedlings.  Keeping only the best one hundred, they kept experimenting with the Impatiens until they had developed the top ten plants.  From those ten, descend the thousands of varieties of hybrid Impatiens that we now find today in our garden centers and nurseries.

Within fifteen years, their original Blue Boy Impatien and another Impatien that was actually a mutation, Red Sport, were extremely popular among gardeners all over the world.  I think one of the most interesting stories within this story, is the fact that the original Impatien plants is the fact that they started out as scraggly plants, almost leafless, with not terribly attractive and tiny one inch flowers.  Today, you’ll find Impatiens with flowers as large as three inches across and with many leaves that can be quite varied in shape, edges, or patterns to chose from.

Why Growing Impatiens Can Require Patience

As I quickly found out the first time I took home some Impatiens, they can require considerable patience, unless you know all of their likes and dislikes.  Here are some tips to insure that your Impatiens, don’t try your patience:

1.  They are tender plants, that while are supposed to be perennial plants, must be grown as annual plants if you live in a colder region.

2.  They may be started from seed, but you must wait sufficient time for the ground to warm, usually at least ten weeks after your last frost.  Realize that the seeds are very tiny and difficult to work with.  I generally use unset jello as a medium for placing the seeds where I want them to stay. 

3.  Most gardeners, including this one, just buy the already started plants.  Buy Impatiens that are densely compact in the pot.  Buy Impatiens that have darker green leaves.  Buy Impatiens that are just starting to bloom vs. the ones that are already in full bloom (no matter how pretty). 

4.  Impatiens are shade loving plants.  While they will sometimes live in partial shade conditions, make no mistake, they will not be happy and will required lots of extra water.  Their unhappiness will be expressed in plants who very quickly look like someone took a blow torch to them and melted them (constantly wilting).

5.  Impatiens require lots of water.

6.  Fertilize your Impatiens about every five to six weeks.

7.  Use a slow release fertilized.

8.  Cut all lanky or spindly looking Impatien plants to half their height. 

9.  Winter your Impatiens by taking them inside in pots before any possibility of frost, and let them winter in the sunniest window if you want them to be halfway.  Keep them warm and well watered.

10.  Do not fertilize Impatiens during the winter.

Lastly, in case you are wondering how it was that this plant came to be known as “Impatiens” the answer is found in the seeds.  The Touch-me-not (common name), has the same kind of impatience we humans can have — it has a certain impatience in holding on to its seeds.  The seeds, once ripened, simply explode without much provocation, or at the slightest touch — rocketing the seeds as far away from the mother plant as it can.  Sort of reminds one of the human teenaged years, when our young ones are often “touchy” and can’t wait to get as far away from us, just like the seeds in an Impatien.


If You’d Like To Know More About Growing Impatiens  

Here are some links: 

Cliff’s Fast Find Article — Impatiens

Iowa State University - Growing Impatiens In The Garden Home 

Gardening Know How - Impatiens Flowers

Mr. Impatiens