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Patience Please, With Impatiens

When gardeners begin shopping for spring flowers, they may notice a familiar staple missing: the impatiens.

Impatiens walleriana, which are beloved globally for their wide selection of color and low maintenance, have been affected by a fungus called downy mildew. The fungus first causes tiny spots, then yellowness on the leaves. A few weeks later, all that’s left is the flower’s stem and a frustrated gardener.

The fungus was first spotted in Europe nearly a decade ago, and has spread to much of the U.S. in the past few years. Wind spreads the fungal spores up to three miles and humid weather causes it to spread rapidly.

Nate Jackson, green goods garden center manager at Hicks Nurseries in Westbury, stresses that the fungus is specific in attacking only impatiens walleriana, not other types such as New Guinea impatiens. The fungus also does not affect other types of flowers, so planting them where infected impatiens once were or nearby will not bother the new crop.  

“This is one of those diseases that will totally devastate your impatien crop. But it is only impatiens. Each downy mildew is very specific to the type of plant it attacks,” Jackson said.

However, Jackson urges gardeners who have planted infected impatiens in the past to throw out that soil, as the spores can linger and kill future impatiens.

“All the spores can survive on the debris in the ground and in the soil for up to three years, so it’s very important that you clean up the old debris. Don’t compost it, it goes straight in the garbage. As much as you can get away, the more chance of success you’re going to have in the future,” Jackson said.

Impatiens walleriana is the highest selling bedding flower in North America. After becoming aware that the popular annual would be in much more limited quantities or even completely unavailable, Jackson and his team at Hicks worked to find alternatives for gardeners.

“We recognize this is a problem. But we’ve really worked hard this off-season to come up with the right solutions for people. We have a nice palette for people to choose from and we’re very prepared,” Jackson said.

Jackson says that while Hicks will be testing their impatiens, and will have signage informing customers about the downy mildew, he still advises against planting them.

“If you’re going to plant impatiens in Long Island or even in Manhattan, there’s a very high chance that they’re going to get infected, even if you’ve done everything you can do prevent it. It’s up to the consumer to make that choice,” Jackson said.

But while this quasi-epidemic may have frustrated numerous gardeners, it may not be as widespread a problem as some believe according to Rob Alvey, founder of the Garden City Bird Sanctuary/Tanners Pond Environmental Center.  

“Impatiens plants are very inexpensive annuals. The fungus hit a lot last year but it is a commercial problem, not a major issue for homeowners who have lots of choices to plant,” he explained adding, “If people DO want impatiens, stick with the larger Belgian impatiens. They are much more resistant, but more expensive.”

For those looking to fill their gardens with the beautiful colored blossoms, Jackson suggests torenias, New Guinea impatiens, vincas, and wave petunias. Nelson Demarest, visual merchandising manager, also suggests wax or rieger begonias.

“If you want more bang for your buck, these are great,” Demarest said. “They’re no hassle and last all summer.”

He adds that while the leafy plant coleus has no flowers, the pink, purple and red leaves can brighten up any garden.

“It’s just an endless rainbow of color,” Demarest said.

Donna Moramarco, Director of Marketing at Martin Viette Nursery, says that people should keep in mind that no other plant will look or act like an impatien.

“There’s no mystery about them, but unfortunately with the downy mildew, there’s no way for the homeowner to know. People take a lot of pride in their gardens, and people are really looking forward to spending time outside and the last thing they want is to not have success,” Moramarco said.

But, not having the familiar flower can force gardeners out of their comfort zones and look for other ways to fill the shady spots of their garden.

“Impatiens are off the radar for a while. There is life after impatiens and I think it’s going to give people opportunities to have some new friends in the garden. People might be pleasantly surprised,” Moramarco said.

So when can impatien lovers expect to see their favorite flowers again? Not for a couple of years, says Jackson.

“We kind of just have to see how it goes,” Jackson said. “The biggest thing is cleaning up if you see the problem, and trying to avoid planting impatiens and after two or three years, it’ll eventually die off.”

Dave Gil de Rubio contributed to this story.