The Garden Balsam (Impatiens balsamina) is a member of the Balsaminaceae Family also known as the Balsam or Jewel weed Family with upward of 850 species classified within only two genera.
The genus Impatiens which includes the very popular Garden Impatiens and Balsams comprises about 300 species and many hundreds of cultivars which can be both annual and perennial.
The annual Garden Balsam was discovered only a few hundred years ago in Southeast Asia growing wild and in cultivation from India through to China. It is a tender (sub) tropical annual species which can live for a few months to upwards of a year or more before flowering and seeding itself to death. Often in the wild or when grown in an advantageous location, the plants will reseed and continue to produce numerous offspring which spread to create impressive clumps and displays.
Because it is so fast growing and hardy it is still a favourite for beds, borders, along pathways and walks, in containers and window boxes and also as very valuable fillers between other plants within a variety of garden positions. The plants are so erect, floriferous, medium tall and easily transplanted that they can be popped in between whenever a more dominant plant has finished or to fill in the holes after early flowering bulbs and perennials have died away. Since they can be had in flower from Late Spring through frost, this makes them ideal replacement colour to keep garden beds looking bright and interesting.
The Victorian Age saw the Garden Balsam rise in popularity. In the Language of Flowers its meaning is ‘Impatient for Love’ or ‘Impatience’. The modern day hybrid Garden Impatiens (Impatiens sultani) so popular today had yet to be discovered in Zanzibar. In those Victorian times, the Garden Balsam was the flower of choice which superseded them. During that time Garden Balsams were very widely planted and were a warm-weather feature in most cottage gardens and semi formal as well as casual displays.
Garden Balsams were most often used in sunny positions and also partial shade down to somewhat drier positions in light shade or dappled light. Being sub tropical and very frost tender, they were planted outdoors or sown from seed outside once all danger of frost had passed. They can also be sown earlier and grown quite successfully in the glasshouse and are sometimes flowered on a sunny warm windowsill indoors during the colder months very similar to the popular Garden Impatiens (Impatiens sultani).
Balsams will survive in a remarkable variety of soils but do best in enriched, good quality garden soils that remain moist but drain well. They will tolerate quite damp positions provided temperatures remain consistently above 20C/68F or preferably much warmer. But avoid cold, damp and wet ground as this will result in rotting of this subtropical native.
Garden Balsam plants are roughly 12-36in/30-90cm tall. Usually they are erect, fleshy and thick-stemmed on a solitary spike that sometimes branches to make bushy plants as they mature. The stems are succulent and appear almost watery often with reddish streaks running up the stems which sometimes demonstrate swollen junctures where other side branches sometimes emerge. The plants can be quite brittle when filled with water and especially during cool weather. Yet the same plant will become limp, soft and wilted in very dry and hot weather.
Leaves are simple, smooth, and lanceolate often with small, soft teeth. These leaves cling on short stalks all up their succulent stems. Flowers appear also on short stalks from buds that develop in small clusters between the stem and the attached leaves. These flowers open in succession over many weeks up the main stem, creating bright candlesticks of floral colour.
Especially during Victorian times, the accompanying leaves were carefully removed partially up the stem as the flowers opened to reveal the stem covered in delicate flowers. This made quite a dramatic garden statement, especially when the colourful floral spikes could be viewed side-on from a lawn garden or raised bed. Once the main stem is spent, if it is pinched out about halfway down its length and seeds removed, multiple side branches will form in a candelabra fashion and also produce numerous shorter flower spikes.
The classic Balsam flower consists of three sepals two of them small and green, the third is irregular and petal-like with a conspicuous spur; and five petals often fused together to make what appear to be three. When combined these create a hooded, round-topped bloom, ovary in the centre with the fused petals creating a blousy, extended lip. This leads to the original species common name of ‘Lady’s Slipper’.
The classic Victorian variety, still occasionally available today was known as ‘Pink Perfection’ or ‘Pink Lady’s Slipper’ and produces large and lovely soft pink blooms from near pearl pink, through shell pink to nearly light rose. These carry a pleasant, soft perfume. ‘Pink Perfection’ is a hardy and robust form which usually reseeds to produce a similar progeny.
When the petals become doubled or tripled they create a much more rounded and almost fluffy appearance; sometimes even like small globes. This gives rise to their name ‘Camellia-Flowered’ Balsam. These double flowered forms are quite spectacular but usually are somewhat shorter than the ‘Lady’s Slipper’ variety. Some of the Camellia globe forms are truly dwarf and produce flowers over a shorter duration, but every bloom is a small treasure. The original species tends to predominate and the exotic ‘Camellia-Flowered” double forms often revert back to the hardy basic form through successive generations of seedlings come off the original Camellia-Flowered parent plant. Camellia forms are often fragrant, too, but some to a lesser extent than the single-flowered species.
Many flower colours except true blue can be found in Garden Balsams. Flowers are often in very vivid shades which can appear quite translucent when sun sparkles through their petals. Most common single-flowered forms include many pastel and vivid shades of: lavender, lilac, mauve, pink purple, red, rose, salmon, scarlet and white, occasionally orange and yellow. Double Camellia-Flowered forms also appear in all these same shadings but also pretty bi-colours and unusual mottled, spotted forms.
The tiny ovary in Garden Balsam is held within the petals. This ovary is easily pollinated by Bees, Hummingbirds and assorted insects and then begins to form seed capsules or pods. As the petals fall away, the seed capsules soon expand and droop; hanging all the way down the main stem of the plant in large numbers somewhat reminiscent of tiny Carica Papaya.
These pods are grape-green with felty hairs covering succulent 5 celled oval pods; pointed at the tip; each holding multiple small brown to black round seeds much like small buck-shot. The name ‘Impatiens’ is from the Latin for ‘impatience’ in allusion to the easy and quickness that these plants bloom and also how fast the pods burst open and scatter their seeds.
These are a delight of children (of all ages) as once these seed pods ripen and begin to yellow they quite dramatically explode with the slightest touch; dispersing seeds in all directions to a considerable distance. A single Garden Balsam plant can produce upwards of a hundred pods each holding 20 or more seeds. This can bring hours of delight as one pod after another is touched and exploded. With great care, pods can sometimes be picked and then touched with a finger to watch them explode in one’s open hand, or in the face of someone unsuspecting!
Garden Balsam is easily started from seed. Often they will volunteer around the parent, providing valuable seedlings to transplant in the Summer and Autumn garden. Seed will often germinate in as few as 4-5 days. They flower within 10 weeks or less dependent upon climate and growing environment. Seedling plants are easily transplantable. They are excellent in containers, especially when these pots or window boxes can be elevated for closer display and examination of the fragrant and pretty flowers. Perhaps their greatest claim-to-fame is that they make such wonderful fillers between other annuals, perennials, between shrubs as a as bedding or container plants.
Garden Balsams can be started from seed almost any time provided that conditions are very bright, humid, moist and consistently warm. For earliest displays, they are frequently started in the glasshouse up to 6 weeks before the last frost. Seeds are quite reliable so usually one or two seeds are sown into a small container or several into a punnet or they can be raised in a seedling flat and then pricked out into individual containers or punnets.
Use a seed-raising or standard potting mix to which a small amount of slow-release plant food and Lime have been added. Keep this moist and warm with good air flow. Bottom heat speeds germination for earliest sowings. During early season cooler conditions, water well once and only enough after that to keep the soil lightly moist. Over watering during cool weather can result in seed rotting and germination failure.
Once the weather warms, seeds germinate much more rapidly. Often their seed can be sown direct into the garden bed where they are meant to flower. Garden Balsam started in Late Spring- Early Summer, when conditions are consistently warm, can germination in just a few days and plants often grow rapidly and can flower in as little as 4-6 weeks; instead of the usual 10 weeks. These Late Spring and Early Summer sowings produce valuable bedding and filler plants for the Mid-Late Summer and Autumn garden.
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