Farewell to Impatiens?

Recently I have read a number of articles and posts about the devastation caused among Impatiens (Impatiens walleriana and related) by downy mildew. While usually just an unsightly nuisance among perennials, this strain is deadly for Impatiens. It can be treated but only if caught early and if you are willing to resort to the chemical arsenal.

I used Impatiens to fill in between new perennials in this bed. Eventually the space will be taken over by ferns, Columbine, Solomon Seal, and Wall Iris.

This raises two questions. First, is it worth planting Impatiens in 2013? And second, what would you replace them with? My tentative answer to the first question is no. Regarding the second question, I’m not sure, though I have some ideas.

I realize that some people really don’t care. They disdain Impatiens as common, boring, etc. For myself, I do not believe that because a plant is common it is therefore of no value in the garden. I use Impatiens extensively in my shady back garden, mostly in containers but also in beds, as a filler. I also used it last year to fill in between the new perennials in the shady bed on the east side of the house.

We’ve been using this old wheelbarrow as a planter for several years. Last year there was a mix of Impatiens and petunias. Petunias were an experiment that did not work.

Impatiens has several notable virtues, or at least it did until the Impatiens plague came along. First, it blooms its little head off from early summer right through frost. Second, it is not at all bothered by dense shade or by Chicago’s hot and humid summers. Third, it needs almost no attention, the main thing is to keep it from getting too dry. Fourth, it spreads nicely, creating a mounded flowery carpet. Also, it will obligingly spill over the sides of containers, and it attracts hummingbirds. Oh yeah, one other thing: they’re really cheap.

Almost all the Impatiens I plant are white, I like to have lots of white flowers in shady parts of the garden.

Despite all this, I don’t think I will plant any Impatiens this year. Just seems too risky, because once you have infected plants the disease will be in the soil, lying in wait, for Lord knows how long. The best way to be able to plant this species again is to wait out the infestations, or until the breeders come up with resistant varieties.

So what should I plant instead of Impatiens? I will probably use a mix of plants, but they all should be shade tolerant, low-growing, have white flowers, fill in nicely, and not require a lot of attention. Ideally, they will also be good for wildlife. Oh, and not too expensive. A few possibilities include:

Flowering containers
Flowering containers on our back porch landing.

Floss Flower (Ageratum houstonianum).  Usually blue, but has white varieties. Meets all my criteria, except that in my experience this plant will not spill over the side of containers.

Saphire Flower (Browallia). There’s a variety called ‘Endless Flirtation’ with white flowers. This plant is supposed to be a good spiller. Not nearly as cheap as Floss Flower, though.

Foliage Plants. There are varieties of Coleus and Calladium with green and white or near-white leaves. Calladiums are much more expensive, though I usually plant a few anyway.

I also considered but rejected a few possibilities, including annual Lobelia (Lobelia erinus) and various types of Begonias. I like annual Lobelia, but it usually shrivels in the heat of summer. On the other hand, Judy and I just don’t like Begonias. Hard to explain, but there you are.

What about you – will you be planting impatiens this year? And if not, what will you use as a replacement?

67 Comments on “Farewell to Impatiens?”

  1. I too have been reading these reports, and they give me a knot in my stomach! For the nine years I’ve been living in this house, I’ve used hanging baskets of impatiens on my northeast facing front porch, with great success! What else can I put there that will fill in and mound so nicely? What else won’t require dead-heading to keep blooming?

    I also am not really fond of begonias, though there is one spot in my yard, under a rhododendron bush, that they work very well, and look beautiful. Perhaps I will resort to them on my porch as well this year, and hope that dag-darned virus thing goes away soon so I can have my impatiens back!

  2. Wow, Jason. I’m a little behind in my reading and just caught up to this post. I hadn’t heard about the i-crud here, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t made it out west, and I’m grateful for the heads up. I’m with you, and don’t think a plant should be dissed just because it’s commonly available and inexpensive. I plant flats and flats of impatiens, mostly single and a wide variety of colors, depending on clients’ pallettes. I’m grateful for their season-long color, heat tolerance, and easy care. I’ve found that about every five years, the areas where I plant them in soil, need a break. And since my clients require flowers in those spots, I usually have to resort to begonias. At least they’re a bit drought tolerant. I like the idea of foliage plants for a change-up. Caladium sounds like it could be quite nice, although it doesn’t spill. I look forward to a summer report on your solution.

  3. Same here. I was going to say Coleus until I read that you wanted white flowers. But I see that’s one plant you’re considering. I tend to plant a mix of Impatiens and Coleus in my pots. Most of my garden is shady, so Impatiens have been the go-to annual for me for many years! I might go with some New Guineas this year. Alyssum might work if you have partial shade. Other ideas: Violas, Torenias, Lobelias. I will be facing a similar dilemma…and missing my Impatiens!

  4. Impatiens walleriana is also common here. But in my case, i don’t plant them just let those volunteer seeds to grow on their own and just thin some to give room for better growths. I love that white too, but i can’t seem to locate them, they are plants not sold in stores here, as you said common and boring. But i love them too. I can relate to you especially the lovely whites.

  5. In the same way you don’t like begonias (which I love!) I don’t like impatiens… 😉 I hadn’t heard about the mildew problem though. How about a white fuchsia? Although they don’t like intense shade, they do flower all summer.

  6. I have not planted them in years. The problem dates back to about 2004. This year the extension office has warnings out not to plant them. Nurseries are recommended to put up disclosure signs if they even offer them for sale. Downy Mildew on them is such a prevalent problem that it has been suggested as you say to plant other shade tolerant species like,
    Begonias, Coleus, New Guinea Impatiens, Torenia, Iresine, Alternanthera.

  7. The consensus here is not to plant any impatiens.

    If you want to expand beyond annuals for shade, there are lovely white perennials that want shade and will bloom beautifully, Bridal Veil astilbe is one.

    Or goatsbeard, Aruncus. It’s a shade lover, and the tidy little dwarf one A. aethusifolius has creamy white rocket flowers that are little but kind of exciting. I grow it in a container and it’s anise moundy plant. Aruncus dioicus is a big old plant, quite shrubby sized, but what a show of white frothy blooms in shade!

    Or one of the pretty fall anemones, like Honorine Jobert with stunning white flowers, that is good in shade. It blooms late in the season, but foliage looks nice until then. Not a hanging basket plant, but it could fill a spot in the garden very nicely.

  8. I also love white Impatiens. I have planted them all along the beds in front of my house for the last year and a half or so (our winters are very mild, so they have been wintering over, and blooming almost constantly throughout the year). I love the way they look flowing over your wheelbarrow – what a clever idea. I am going to keep my eyes peeled for an old, used wheelbarrow to do the same thing with.

  9. The company where I work tried spraying impatiens last year for this and it didn’t work. It probably would have been worse except we were in a drought. The National Weather Service is currently predicting a warmer and wetter than usual spring this year — perfect conditions for mildew. You probably will be able to find impatiens, especially at the big box stores, but how long they’ll last is difficult to say.

  10. We have this disease our side of the pond too Jason and it is probably not worth trying to grow them. We had an early indication of the virulence of downy mildew thirty years ago when we had a variegated Impatiens walleriana as a house plant – for quite a few years – and then it suddenly went down to this mildew. Now of course this disease is resistant of common fungicides. What a shame. We find fuchsias tend to do very well in shade

  11. I absolutely LOVE your wheelbarrow planter!! How amazing is that!!! The impatiens look gorgeous in there and your containers on your steps look great too. I will be planting impatiens this year, I think they’re just beautiful and will work brilliantly in the borders I have planned (and again, inspired by you dude). I have a feeling that impatiens are among some of the plants used on the ‘Puppy’ in Bilbao, North Spain – a huge ‘sculpture’ of sorts covered in flowers. I’m not aware of the plague being in the UK but if we have another wet summer like last year these plants might not fare too well. They definitely don’t last too well on my front steps as it’s too hot and sunny there for them and when I don’t water properly they suffer. I’ll check out some of the alternatives you mention too.

  12. I’m with Anna – I love your wheelbarrow planter! I’m planning to copy it, if that’s okay with you. As for your impatiens replacement, if you have your heart set on white, that’s a tough one – in annuals, anyway. I agree those annual bedding begonias are pretty boring, but that is one of the few that comes to mind that might work. I vote for coleus.

  13. You gave me a heads up about this plague last month. Reading your blog post, I am absolutely scared now to even try to buy and plant them. Because I have so much shade at my upstate New York house, impatiens do well, and I depend on them for front yard color by my door. I wonder if the African impatiens will be affected by this, too. Not many substitutes.

  14. Mine, and all my clients’ impatiens became diseased and died late last summer. I saw the same thing everywhere in the south ‘burbs – not a plant left unaffected, including the doubles. I love browalias, never been a big fan of wax begonias, but will have more of those this year, and I love Dragon Wing begonias. I think we’ll see a lot more wax and Dragon Wings this year. I don’t care if they’re ubiquitous. They’re colorful, easy-care, foliage isn’t bad, bloom non-stop all season, and for me they’ll make a reasonable impatiens replacement. One nice thing about wax begonias is they’re very drought-tolerant, and also will put up with more moisture than a lot of other begonias. Dragon Wings are very tolerant of different moisture levels too.

    I like torenias a lot for shade – not as thirsty as impatiens, but close. Fuchsias are nice too, but don’t bloom as well in the kind of heat we’ve been having in recent summers.

    I also love colorful foliage – Persian shield, coleus,iresine, perilla, etc., but it’s just not the same as blooms.

  15. I had not heard this either. I usually plant white ones also because they seem to stand out in the evening light. One year I tried caladiums in a corner and really liked the look. I saved the bulbs and planted them last year and they did great. They like the heat and humidity here where the impatiens droop and need water daily. Yes they are a little pricey but hopefully I can get a few years from them. Allysum does well for me too and spills nicely.

  16. Oh, this is what happens when cuttings and seed come from just a couple suppliers for the whole country. I have some pink and deep carmine impatiens that I held over and have taken cuttings. Problem is these fungal diseases are airborne. So do I plant out mine? The candy tuft is evergreen, but not a long period of bloom. I would be tempted to substitute alyssum is part sun.

  17. The problem with Impatiens has been getting worse year on year in the UK, lst year most garden centres stopped selling it! One of the things you mention is probably part of the cause, you said they are/were cheap – it is the producers fight to be the cheapest that has probably added to the problem but not being careful enough about plant hygiene. As a suggestion for replacements, what about Fuschia? They do well in shade, probably a bit more expensive but you can take cuttings very easily to increase stock and they come in a multitude of colours including white. Christina

  18. It’s been interesting reading through the comments on this post, and it shows how ingrained our personal preferences are. I used to use impatients a lot in a bed visible from the kitchen window, and they used to flower non-stop all summer. Then for a few years they were really disappointing and I heard about the mildew which presumably explained why. Our nearest garden centre had some for sale last year, much to my surprise, and I tried a tray of them but they didn’t last long. Such a shame – and I don’t like the New Guinea ones or begonias either! I am just discovering verbena for my pots – they flowered for ages last year but I don’t know how they would do in shade.

  19. It’s always sad to see any group of plans afflicted by disease like this…especially a stalwart of the shade garden. I’d be hesitant to plant Impatiens balfourii, it reseeds like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I had one plant 2 years ago, 100 plants last year…and probably a million this year. I’m going to be weeding them out for the rest of my life!

  20. What an awful thing to have happen. I had no idea this was occurring. I used to plant impatiens in containers and hanging baskets at our old house. We lived in perpetual shade and these plants were one of the few things I could count on. Other plants I used in containers were annual lobelia, fuschia, ferns, mimulus and sedges. Hopefully you find a combination that works well for you in place of the impatiens.

  21. I haven’t planted impatiens since moving to SC. I had a lot of them in Virginia and they reseeded every summer, filling my garden every year. I miss them a bit, though not sure if I feel like having them through the end of time. Ageratum falls into that category as well, reseeded until it was swallowed by salt water and came no more.

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  23. A shame a think. But there are some new strains that are resistant that should soon make commercial success. Some were being sold in the UK last year, where they were already dealing with this epidemic. I guess the US growers will be scrambling to catch up this year…. too bad they did not read about it last year! One of the perks of having garden blogging friends in the UK.

  24. Hi Jason, last year, there was quite a strong focus on the Impatiens, downy mildew and possible replacements in gardening TV. It’s been a pretty big problem here. Though I do like some impatients, most of the ones in catalogues are just gaudy awful colours and over-bred – perfect for the hanging basket I suppose.

  25. Fortunately I do like New Guineau impatiens-especially the variegated foliage varieties although I find they do prefer more sun. Last year all my regular impatiens succumbed to this disease-especially the butterfly impatiens that I grew beautifully as spillers in some 2011 container designs. It’s always something isn’t it?

  26. don’t fret – there are varieties coming along that are resistant, I’ve already seen them advertised here in the UK as mentioned above – and in the meantime try the New Guinea versions – they have larger flowers too…
    I have stopped using them though myself as annuals are a pain even though I have some pots growing well on my windowsill – but petunias and antirrhinums this year. Thanks for reading my blog.

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