Sandy’s Garden

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New Guinea Busy Lizzies

1596 is recorded as the year in which the first Impatiens balsamina were brought to the British Isles from South-east Asia. Their botanical name means ‘the impatient plants which bear balsam’; and the reason for calling them ‘impatient’ plants refers to the explosive release of the seed when a ripe seed capsule is touched … we are, perhaps, more familiar with the explosive nature of the seed pods on broom bushes, for all keen gardeners will have dead-headed their Impatiens to prevent the formation of seed pods and encourage the development of further flowers as the plants try to achieve their life’s ambition, which is to continue their species by producing seed. We are also more familiar with the plant under one of its common names, which include Touch-me-not and Jumping Betty … for fairly obvious reasons … or the name by which they are most often known in central Scotland, Busy Lizzies.

Given their popularity today, it may come as a surprise to learn that the eminent botanist Sir Joseph Hooker (1817 - 1911) called them ‘a terror to botanists’, although I cannot say why. Busy Lizzies do, however, present the average gardener with one problem; they are really not very happy if they are exposed to too much sun which, in the case of my own Busy Lizzies at least, means not very much sun at all. There are around a staggering 850 species in the genus; and one of the best, in my opinion, is the New Guinea Busy Lizzie, Impatiens hawkeri, which was bought to this country from Papua New Guinea in 1884.

Impatiens hawkeri was the first of the New Guinea species, and was collected by Lt. Hawker R.N., which explains the second part of its name. It quickly became popular as a greenhouse plant in the last years of the nineteenth century and, driven no doubt by this popularity, there were claims that a further fifteen different New Guinea species had been discovered, although these supposedly different species are nowadays regarded as simply different forms of Impatiens hawkeri. Nurserymen were also attracted by these New Guinea Busy Lizzies and set about hybridising them with a will, seeking to develop hardier strains that would survive British winters out-of-doors, seeking to extend the range of colours of the flowers and seeking to develop hybrids with larger, longer-lasting flowers. In my own garden I have some with vivid pink flowers, which contrast strikingly with the dark green glossy leaves; and I find the New Guinea species to be rather happier than Impatiens balsamina with some sunshine, which certainly helps show off their colours.

A description of Impatiens hawkeri, I cannot better that given by one of the many companies that specialise in supplying these plants, Busy Lizzie direct. As their website says, “Their flowers are much larger than other impatiens with colour that almost glow. The foliage itself is much larger and the plants are more upright than spreading. Some of the varieties have variegated leaves. New Guinea impatiens were developed as impatiens that would tolerate more sun than others and they need more light than other varieties to bloom.”

Yet here is a strange fact. Around the shores of Lake Garda in the north of Italy, where I delight to spend holiday time, New Guinea Busy Lizzies bloom in profusion in full sun in temperatures that regularly reach 35°C in the shade! They are truly magnificent, with seriously large flowerheads that make a mockery of the 70 mm or 80 mm diameter … say 3 inches in old money … of mine. I have no explanation for this, and can only guess that it is the fact that many (all?) of the Italian plants enjoy automatic watering systems to ensure that they are watered at least once in every twenty-four hours when they are out of the direct sun.

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society