A Few Alternatives to Impatiens

The Gardenist

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I got quoted this week in the Wall Street Journal because I'm a hardcore impatiens hater. Funny what will get you quoted. When pretty much the whole crop failed this year and impatiens became seriously scarce, blog posts about impatiens-hating must have popped up on Google search, and I got a call.  

Impatiens are one of the most popular bedding plants in the US, primarily because they do a job that many other plants can struggle with — they fill shady areas with bright, consistent blooms. Bart Zeigler shares some good alternatives in his WSJ story, and I thought I would share a few more in case you are missing your impatiens this year and wondering what to replace them with. 

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New Guinea Impatiens are different than Impatiens walleriana. The walleriana variety is the more ubiquitous variety, and has been largely wiped out this year by a downy mildew that kills the plant. If you live anywhere but the driest states (like the Rockies and Southwest), you aren't going to have a whole lot of luck finding them in the nursery. New Guinea Impatiens are, however, a good alternative.  They have a nice tropical look with their much lusher leaves and sturdy stems.  

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Torenia (above) is nice, and I think the color options (nice deep purples and whites and yellows) are more attractive than the sometimes garish colors of impatiens.

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Begonias are another option. I really like the exotic and sophisticated look of Mandalay Mandarin Begonia (above). There are many colors and varieties — some have flowers that look like camillas and roses, and others have flat, winged flowers that remind me more of impatiens. It is also worth growing some begonias for their foliage. Gryphon Begonia (below) has leaves that blow my mind. And Caladiums and Coleus both have such nice showy leaves that most people hardly miss the flowers — they are a favorite for me. 

I've also had reasonable success with putting house plants like spathiphyllum or asparagus fern into the same place one might put impatiens.  They are much more elegant, and you can take them inside for the winter. And lastly, you might also try getting away from huge areas of annuals all together. They just cost so much in the long term and it doesn't make sense. I have encouraged many clients to fill shady areas with things like varieties of hakonechloa, lady's mantel, kirengeshoma palmata, hosta, joe pye weed, pierus, astilbes, hydrangeas, brunnera, ferns and even some grasses (which even though they tend to be sun lovers, often do well in the shade). 

I think that sometimes, for things to get better, they must first break. We have entirely too many of these types of situations where we have all decided that you must have one specific thing — in this case the mental rule is 'plant impatiens in the shade for color' — and then everyone does it and it has become like some sort of universal cultural crutch, as if nothing else grows in the shade. These sorts of silly rules are not just limiting to creativity, but they aren't good for our environment. Diversity is always better. I look forward to us being forced to find alternatives.  

What are you planting where you once planted impatiens? 

Oh, and if you really need an impatiens fix, that top image is a downloadable wallpaper for your computer — guaranteed not to get downy mildew. 


(Images: mostbeautifulflower.com and proven winners)

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