Friday, April 20, 2018
Home and Garden

Beloved impatiens may not make a return for years

I’m late to the wake, but apparently, I'm not the only one who missed the obit.

Like me, maybe you felt something lacking in the landscape this winter but couldn't put your finger on it. Or you figured you were to blame for killing the little purple, pink, orange and red blooms that used to reappear so faithfully each year under your oaks.

If it's any consolation, it's not your fault.

A mystery strain of downy mildew has all but wiped out impatiens walleriana, the best-selling annual in the United States, according to some experts. It hit Florida in 2010 or 2011, based on Growers Talk magazine and local experts, and Tropical Storm Irene blew it up the East Coast and into the Midwest in August 2011.

Lots of gardeners are mourning, though they don't realize their beloved is really gone.

"Oh, how I miss the impatiens They really are a staple for my yard," says Becky Perry of Odessa. "I miss walking around and popping the big seed pods. I used to just pop them and let them grow where they were. Now I'm saving every seed I can pop and carefully trying to propagate them."

Sorry, Becky. Lost cause.

"If you've already lost plants to this mildew, the spores are in the ground and they can live there for years," says Rick Brown, who supplies the state's Home Depot garden centers with annuals and perennials.

So give up — for now.

"It'll be a few years before the breeders come up with a new seed that's resistant to this strain," says Sydney Park Brown, Rick's wife and the consumer horticulture specialist for the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

"The breeders are going after this full bore because it's such a huge crop all over the world. But it's going to take awhile."

If you, like Becky, are trying to propagate from seeds, planting in containers may boost the odds of survival — a bit. But a little wind (which spreads the spores), humidity and rain (which ripens their growing conditions) will quickly kill whatever you've got.

Sydney and Rick say they've long relied on impatiens in their own Plant City garden. It's a great flower for shady areas, thrives with no irrigation, and reseeds on its own.

"Nothing gives the color punch like impatiens," Sydney says.

So it's hard to let go.

"When I go to the stores," Rick says, "people look at me dumbfounded when I tell them, 'No more impatiens.' They miss them, but they don't realize they're gone. They aren't aware of the disease."

The new go-to plant in the Browns' garden is New Guinea impatiens, which don't flower through the summer but make up for that with colorful foliage.

"They are beautiful," Sydney says. "And they're completely resistant. We have the compact variety and they get 2 to 2 1/2 feet tall."

They also recommend SunPatiens, a variety that can (mostly) take full sun and resists the killer mildew.

But, beautiful as they are, the substitutes are a hard sell, says Pat Duncheon, owner of Duncheon's Nursery and Landscaping in Land O'Lakes. He's been pushing both varieties, along with wax begonias. But most of his customers aren't going for it.

"I've put in New Guineas on a couple of landscaping jobs, and they're beautiful, but most of my customers don't want them," he says. "Yeah, they don't bloom as much, and they're a little thirsty when you're getting them started, but they're great plants.

"Begonias are good, too. They have lots of color. I can't figure out why people don't want those, either."

Sydney also suggests pansies, petunias and violas for replacements through the winter. For spring, try caladiums, coleus, and wax begonias.

You may still find impatiens walleriana in your local nursery. Pat, for one, plans to try them again in the spring.

"We have customers who say theirs are still okay," he says. "That gives us hope."

Penny Carnathan can be reached at [email protected] Find more local garden stories on her blog, www.digginfladirt; join in the chat on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt. Follow @DigginPenny on Twitter.