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Impatiens sp. L. 1753
pronounced: im-PAT-ee-enz species
(Balsaminaceae – the balsam family)
common name: Impatience, Busy Lizzie
If any reader is surprised that I have spelt the common name ‘impatience’, it is because, as a Latinist, I cannot bring myself to pronounce Impatiens in any other way than ‘im-PAT-ee-enz’; and when I do so, people look at me as if I am mad. So I bow to the commonly used pronunciation, but refuse to spell it otherwise than ‘impatience’. Impatiens is, of course, Latin for ‘impatient’. These plants are so-called because their ripe seed pods will sometimes burst open even from a light touch, as if they were impatient to open. The ‘Busy Lizzie’ name comes from Victorian times, when these were very popular house plants.
Impatiens originally comes from Africa. The Impatiens flowers commonly sold at nurseries are hybrids, and most are treated as annuals. They are typically short plants, attaining a height of not more than 30 cm. Some, such as the ‘Super Elfin’ series, stay much shorter (hence their name). The flowers come in a variety of colours, including white, red, pink, violet, coral and purple. There is even a recently-developed yellow cultivar. Impatiens is a very popular bedding plant, especially for shaded areas. It is also used in container gardens, ranging from hanging baskets to window boxes.
Impatiens is a genus of some 850–1,000 species, widely distributed throughout the Northern Hemisphere and the tropics. Together with Hydrocera trifolia (the only species in its genus, and confined to India and south-east Asia), Impatiens makes up the whole family of Balsaminaceae. This is a highly unusual situation, and I cannot believe that those botanists who study plant relationships will leave it alone for much longer, without wanting to split the genus into smaller parts.
The leaves of these plants are entire and shiny; their upper side has a thick, water-repellent outer layer that gives them a greasy feel. Particularly on the underside of the leaves, tiny air bubbles are trapped under the leaf surface, giving them a silvery sheen that becomes pronounced when they are held under water.
The flowers, up to 2 or 3 cm across, in most species are made up by a shoe- or horn-shaped spur for the most part, with at least the upper petals insignificant by comparison; some have a prominent labellum to allow pollinators to land. Other species, including the one photographed (probably a hybrid developed from Impatiens walleriana), have flattened flowers with large petals and just a tiny spur. A few species have flowers intermediate between these two types.
The caterpillars of a number of moths feed on the plant, including:
Impatiens is one of the traditional 83 Bach flower remedies, supposedly alleviating impatience. All Impatiens taste bitter and seem to be slightly toxic upon ingestion, causing intestinal ailments like vomiting and diarrhea.
The ‘balsams’ used in shampoos (Peru balsam and Tolu balsam) are not true balsams, but are derived from the unrelated genus Myroxylon.
Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.
Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2010
Page last updated 17th January 2018