Last spring I traveled to South America with a group. One day we went to a rancho in Chile for a luncheon. I noticed purple flowers growing in the front yard and asked what they were. No one answered me as they were all watching the Darwin foxes that had come to beg for leftovers.
When I returned home, I sent a picture of the flowers to fellow Napa County Master Gardeners, who identified the flowers as a type of impatiens. I have been a gardener for a long time but did not know there were so many impatiens varieties. There are hundreds of different species, a few even native to the United States.
Impatiens are sometimes called busy lizzies, poor man's orchids or touch-me-nots. New Guinea hybrids are the ones available in most nurseries, in a wild array of colors. They are tropical plants and mostly native to Africa and Asia. They were named impatiens for the eagerness of the seed pod to break open.
One thing that all impatiens in common is the way they spread their seeds. This was especially true of the plants I saw inChile. When you touch the ripe seed, you can feel the energy it puts into popping and spreading the seed. It's amazing for such a small seedpod to have so much strength.
The impatiens we see in the nursery are in the Balsaminaceae family. These have been hybridized to create blooms in a wide variety of colors. An orange one has overwintered for several years in my hothouse.
Once I knew the family of the mystery flower, I could start looking for seeds. Species impatiens and hybrids bloom in a range of colors, including pink, red, purple and yellow. Some are bi-colored, some have variegated leaves and others have double flowers.
The seeds I bought germinated easily. I have a shady corner near my house where the plants bloomed in containers from late summer through fall. When winter set in, I moved the pots into the hothouse. Luckily I had saved seed as the plants did not survive the hothouse temperature (usually in the 40s). Most of them have died back. Impatiens are considered an annual in our climate.
One of my favorites came from a fellow Master Gardener. I put the plant into a large tub and spent a few hours over the summer snapping open the ripe seedpods. It is rather relaxing to just snap a few each day. The seeds were about the size of a sweet-pea seed. I know they have been pollinated because I saw bees and hummingbirds visit the blooms.
I saved some seed and the rest I scattered over areas where I would like this impatiens to grow. I hope the seeds will germinate in spring.
Regardless of species, all impatiens have the same basic needs. They like shade or dappled sunlight and moist roots. They provide a mass of color where other plants will not.
The species flowers do not look like the hybridized flowers. The former have long throats and the petals are of different sizes. If you want to see some of the more exotic ones, search online for images of impatiens. You will be amazed by the differences.
Impatiens gladulifera, the impaciens I saw in Chile, is a nitve to the Himalayas. I has become an invasive plant in some areas, including English parks, Eastern USA Coast forests, Washington State and Oregon and Hawaii.
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. Napa County Master Gardeners (http://napamg.ucanr.edu) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Garden Questions?