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Impatiens (Busy lizzie)
Choosing impatiens

From Garden Answers

In most large towns, and many country villages, there are streets of old houses, Victorian perhaps or even earlier, where a few people live who've been there for most of their lives. They love their old brown family furniture, their smoky Victorian fireplaces and their sadly tawny net curtains which were white in, perhaps, 1976.

House hunting in Leicestershire last autumn, I came upon one such, right on the street, the old white paint peeling, and on the windowsill behind the nets - was the busy lizzie: succulent and straggly with long, bare stems topped with a tuft of pale leaves and a few sugary pink flowers.

Through the nets I glimpsed the owner, sitting upright in her armchair in front of the faint fire. I wanted to knock, and tell her that they've invented central heating and busy lizzies which only grow 6in/15cm high. But then I wished that I too could sit and listen to the Home Service all day!

In twenty-five quick years busy lizzies have been transformed, hurried into the future and re-invented as impatiens. They've largely abandoned the inside windowsill for the border and hanging basket, and become the best selling bedding plant on the planet; untold millions are spent developing new varieties.

They're now reliably neat, at least outside; they're astonishingly prolific; year by year millimetres(!) are added to the flower size; the colour palette continues to extend, in small jumps rather than large leaps; and their adaptability remains unquestioned.

Impatiens are splendid in the shade, they're the best annuals for shady town gardens. 'Expo White' lights up dark corners creeping out from under a white-edged hosta like 'Francee'. The pastel 'Super Elfin Mother of Pearl' blend can be strewn through dark borders and, with sufficient moisture, even under trees to bring light to an area which you previously thought was only fit for a shed.

In the sun they're dazzling, although they hate drought, and in a tub on the patio the delicately patterned 'Mosaic Lilac' makes a sultry combination with 'McGregor's Favourite' ornamental beetroot and the dusky purple-blue spikes of Salvia farinacea 'Victoria'.

Choosing varieties

The subtleties of colour in impatiens are extraordinary. The palette runs from red through myriads of pinks to white, plus almost orange and almost blue, to purples and lavenders. There are bright, white-starred types, delightful eyed, picotee and speckled varieties and even a few doubles. The, less robust, New Guinea types feature orange shades, new types add yellow. All are F1 Hybrids, the F2 Hybrids are far cheaper but correspondingly less impressive.

The names Tempo, Accent, and Super Elfin are dominant with the Tempo Series featuring twenty seven different colours. You'll also find Blitz, Novette, Expo, Deco, Bruno, Neon, Swirl, Mosaic and Starbright in catalogues; you can depend on them all.

Best reds: 'Deco Red' has deep red flowers against bronzed foliage &endash; lovely with silver or Haloragis 'Wellington Bronze'; 'Super Elfin Velvet Red' has the darkest green leaf.

Best whites: 'Expo White' has large pure white flowers; 'Deco Crystal' is very slightly blushed with a tiny cherry eye.

Best pinks: 'Accent Pink' is a lovely soft shade; 'Accent Apricot' is a strong colour.

Best New Guinea type: The new, four colour 'Java' mixture stands out; 'Tango' is a vigorous bright orange. Both are best in containers and in hot summers.

Best novelty colours: The delicate speckling of 'Mosaic Lilac' and 'Mosaic Rose' is delightful; best in tubs where you can appreciate the patterns from close-to. 'Tempo Cherry Butterfly' is blush pink with a bold, cherry, V-mark in the eye.

Best starred type: 'Dazzler Violet Star' has a bold white stripe on each purple petal; 'Mega Orange Star' is especially vigorous. 'Starbright' is the best mixture.

Best double: 'Confection' produces the most fully double-flowered plants, the rest will be mainly semi-double; 'Victorian Rose' has a spreading habit and is consistently semi-double.

Best 'designer' blend: The softly pastel 'Super Elfin Mother of Pearl' in pinks, lilac and white is gorgeous; 'Picotee Swirl' has six picoteed pink shades; 'Tempo Jazz' is a vibrant blend of red, orange, violet and strong pink.

Best for the future: The extra tough, tetraploid 'Bruno' was the last innovation, 'African Queen', with yellow hooded flowers, is the first good yellow. Trailing types for baskets are on the way;

Raising and choosing plants

In garden centres, mixtures are the norm - and often the 'one of every colour' mixtures rather than the thoughtfully colour-themed 'designer' blends. If there's only mixtures, buy them in flower. A pack of 'Tempo Mixed' may have six or eight plants &endash; without flowers, you'll have no clue which of the 27 colours you have!

Look for plants which are even in shape; if they've been badly grown, subjected to dramatically changing temperatures or allowed to dry out they may take a while to establish: the occasional long shoot breaking from the plant is a sure sign.

Raising from seed, as usual, is the best way to ensure you have exactly the shades you want. Sow impatiens in a pot in a thermostatically controlled propagator at about 21C/70F and no warmer than 23C/75F; lower temperatures will impede germination. Cover the seed with a fine layer of vermiculite, rather than sifted potting compost, and cover the pot with clingfilm until the seed germinates. Try to keep the temperature as even as possible and always water with tepid water &endash; never cold water straight from the tap.


The big news is that Moles Seeds, which previously sold only to commercial growers, now sell to home gardeners too - and they list one hundred and two different impatiens! Their catalogue is a colourful heavyweight (the complete Tempo Series is illustrated) but the drawbacks are that they insist on a minimum order value of £30 and don't sell small packets &endash; you usually have to buy a minimum of 250 impatiens seeds, mostly at £6-£6.50 a packet. This is about a third of the price in other catalogues; spare seed will keep in the fridge for another year.

Of the more familiar catalogues Thompson & Morgan have the most varieties (25) and the most separate colours (15). Dobies and then Unwins (who still list them as busy lizzies), are close behind. Mr Fothergill has the best range of 'designer' blends (6). The Browns range is the least tempting.

Seed Sources

'Accent Apricot' M, U
'Accent (Blush) Pink' M, PoD, D
'African Queen' T&M
'Bruno Mixed' B, M, MF, D, T&M
'Confection' B, M, MF, PoD, T&M
'Dazzler Violet Star' T&M
'Deco Crystal' M, U
'Deco Red' M
'Expo White' M
'Java' B
'Mega Orange Star' D, T&M
'Mosaic Lilac' B, D, M, S, T&M, U
'Mosaic Rose' D, M, T&M, U
'Picotee Swirl' T&M
'Starbright' B, M, MF, U
'Super Elfin Mother of Pearl' MF
'Super Elfin (Velvet) Red' M, MF, S
'Tango' B, D, M, T&M
'Tempo Cherry Butterfly' M
'Tempo Jazz' MF
'Victorian Rose' M, U


B - DT Brown & Co
D -
Dobies Seeds
M -
Moles Seeds
MF -
Mr Fothergill's Seeds
PoD -
Plants of Distinction
S -
Suttons Seeds
T&M -
Thompson & Morgan Seeds
U -
Unwins Seeds

First published in Garden Answers magazine, March 1999

Impatiens (Busy lizzies) A-Z
©copyright 1999 Graham Rice. All Rights Reserved. All Images Digitally Watermarked.

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