Impatiens FAIL—regrets or good riddance?

Fusion impatiens are also prone to the mildew.

For the last couple years, I have been reading ominous reports of downy mildew decimating impatiens plants. As most of you know, it’s more than just reports now. It’s real—to the extent that entire plantings of traditional impatiens (impatiens walleriana) have been completely wiped out throughout the United Kingdom, and parts of the U.S. The mildew, caused by the pathogen Plasmopara obducens, kills the plants; if caught in time, they can be treated, but once the spores have taken hold, they’re pretty much unstoppable.  There’s a good description of the disease, its symptoms, and its treatments here.

One of the articles I saw mentioned the presence of this in impatiens beds as close as Niagara Falls, Ontario, only about 20 minutes or so away from me.

A Philadelphia Inquirer report said this about anyone who is thinking about using impatiens this year:

Gardeners who do buy them will be taking a risk that experts say isn’t worth it. The plants will probably die, and the shade-loving alternatives being offered up may not cut it for many who depend on the easygoing, affordable impatiens to brighten their summer landscape.”The feeling is, it’s really going to be pretty much everywhere,” says James Harbage, research and production leader at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square.

And here are some observations from Newsday:

“The best and really only way to avoid a reoccurrence is to plant something else,” said Cornell University plant pathologist Meg McGrath, who is based in Riverhead and has been tracking the disease’s progression. The pathogen can be transmitted from infected seeds, on leaves or via airborne spores, and planting impatiens next year – even in another location – will just feed the hungry beast.

I can almost feel the vibrations from your collective shrugs, and can imagine the universal so whats. Who cares about impatiens anyway, right? And besides, the New Guinea varieties and the Sunpatiens aren’t affected by the disease, supposedly.

This is fine for landscapers, who want the ease of impatiens in a sunny spot, but it doesn’t help shade gardeners who actually like impatiens, within reason. I am one of those gardeners. The old-fashioned impatiens really spread well, in my root-filled, shady front garden. I like them for my one floral accent amid all my shade-friendly foliage plants. The semi-doubles (as opposed to the unreliable full doubles) are lovely, and the new Fusion (a walleriana hybrid) achieves shrub-like stature. I hate New Guineas, and if I had sun, I wouldn’t be planting impatiens.

In any case, you can be sure that you’ll be seeing plenty of impatiens this season. Even though many independent garden centers are backing off the plant, Home Depot—and doubtless other boxes—will be selling it.

I have ordered some semi-doubles grown by my local botanical gardens for their annual plant sale. That’s where I got them last year and they did fine.

Does anyone besides me care about this plant?

Previous articleHow to Teach a Town to Garden – Ideas, Please!
Next articleI Must Have This.
Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Years ago garden centers stopped selling the self-seeding variety. For obvious reasons.

    It’s mostly ranchburger homes with the self-seeders every summer & they are fabulously beautiful.

    A bird dropped English daisys & cleome in my garden. A student gave me the single petaled pink hollyhock, a clump of ancient peony arrived with blue ageratum, and verbena bonariensis has been a self-seeding joy.

    With the above I’ve not bought annuals in decades.

    And where THEY decide to seed makes me look like a good gardener!

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  2. I won’t miss them at all. I have never planted them, even though I have shade.

    I remember a beautiful home in town winning a gardening award a few years ago, and all they had were impatiens in white. There was no imagination, just white impatiens. What a disappointment for people who actually gave thought to their gardens.

  3. The disease is caused by not only pernospora but plamopara as well and several species within each of these genus.

    New Guineas are not a good replacement neither are Sunpatiens. Sunpatiens look like an impatiens with sun scald. They are a hideous plant. New Guineas are the number one returned plant because of their incredibly hard to quench thirst for water.

    Best thing is to just plant something else………………….

  4. The I. walleriana hybrids could disappear tomorrow and I wouldn’t shed a tear, but I really like some of the more unusual species (Annie’s Annuals and Perennials has a good selection). They offer a wide variety of colors (blue! lilac!) and flower shapes and some of them are hardy in my area. I’m hoping that they’re immune to, or a least tolerant of, this mildew.

  5. My grandmother & mother grew impatiens in the shady humidity of their property. Beautiful, self-seeding. I tried to grow them around my sunny arid home, but it’s useless. Since there is no real dormant season, I’d rather have perennials around that provide interest year-round.

    Will I miss them? Already do. But it’s in the way I miss my childhood dolls – wouldn’t actually do anything with them even if I did have them back.

  6. Yes! It’s one of the few plants that will give me a massive color punch on my very shaded porch, which is the only place I used them. Most anything else I’ve tried the colors just don’t “pop” the way impatiens do.

  7. I will miss them … I have tons of shade, and I like to tuck them in here and there for color. I’m near Syracuse, so it sounds like I’m not far, either, from the problem.

  8. Here in Chicago area we had fits of Downy Mildew last year – expectations are that it will be worse this year. I have lots of shade in my yard, so I will miss them. Moving to more native plants.

  9. I will miss them! I’m getting a little panicky about what to replace them with. They are cheap, beautiful, and long lasting. I have clumps of white impatiens all around my shady back yard.

  10. Sooo sorry to hear another one of our friends leaving!!! Impatiens are stunning and graciously undemanding…that makes me sad.

  11. When I was a little girl, my mom grew a type of impatiens called balsam.
    I believe the real name is Impatiens balsamina. I havent seen them or their seeds in years. The chief attraction for children was their exploding seed pods and rather large seeds.( about the size of a mustard seed)
    I had lots of complaintslast summer about the impatiens not being as durable as in past years.

    • I still grow the Balsam impatiens. Filled a small child’s hands with the seed pods on her birthday and had her press gently. Biggest smile in the world. I think they still sell the seeds at Gurney’s or Shumways.

  12. I grow a fairly large batch each year to put in pots in the shady corners, whatnot. Bright color in amongst the hostas and shrubberies. Always start from seed, and they are dependable. Often reseed in other pots or on the ground but not obnoxiously. (I once grew the ones marcia mentions above and they are definitely the gift that keep on giving, not what I like.) I stick to Park’s Shady Ladies or this year am trying some Athenas also.

    • Of course, though I was speaking of alternatives within the impatiens group. But speaking to the non-impatiens alternatives, I have never known lobelia to work in shade–not even close–and I have not had much success with torenia in shade either. Believe me, I’ve tried them all! I love coleus, but mainly for containers and it doesn’t really add the pure color pop impatiens does. For the true shade gardener, at least in my zone, there is very little that can give all-season color like judiciously-used impatiens. I wouldn’t want to carpet the front garden in it, but it is a great accent when you have my limitations. I also question begonias in shade. Here in WNY, I see a lot of (hideous) begonia landscape plantings thriving in full sun.

      • Here’s another list from the University of Massachusetts (and Cornell University) that should comport with your zone. Bottom line – Impatiens walleriana (standard impatiens) are going to be problematic until plant breeders come up with resistant varieties. My motto is when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Try some of the alternatives suggested for your shady areas, and see what happens, and rely less on a single species – diversity is a good thing. Others may have better luck than what Elizabeth has experienced. These recommendations come from Land Grant University Extension sources, with no axe to grind, in terms of trying to sell you something – they are offered to make the best of a bad situation. Of course, up to the buyer/gardener to choose:

  13. I think they’re pretty, actually.
    How about Marvel-of-Peru, aka Four O’Clocks? I’ve never grown them, but my in-laws (who lived in L.A. – um, yeah, rather a climate difference) had them in the dry, shady space between the garage and the fence . . . and couldn’t get rid of them.

  14. Can’t plant impatiens any more due to downy mildew, can’t plant roses any more due to rose rosette disease, the hostas get hosta virus X and nematodes and daylilies are afflicted by rust. What is happening to our old stalwart garden friends that used to be so tough and reliable? Over-bred? Changes in environment leading to the emergence of virulent pathogens? The garden used to be the place to go to get away from having to deal with all that stuff and now it has followed me there. Crap!

  15. I’m really glad for the information from Cornell, and Umass extension – right in my own neighborhood. I have very little shade, but the impatiens look beautiful there.

Comments are closed.