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Your Impatiens Are Doomed

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

Butch Starkie, owner of Starkie Brothers Garden Shop in Farmingdale, said he is recommending begonias to client and customer who are looking to plant where shade conditions exist. Despite being historically an expensive choice, he also said that New Guinea varieties of the impatien are also an option, noting that growers are trying to make this variety more competitively priced as a result of the issue.

Nate Jackson, green goods garden center manager at Hicks Nurseries in Westbury, stresses that the fungus is specific in attacking only impatiens walleriana, 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.

Impatiens walleriana is the highest selling bedding flower in North America. After becoming aware that the popular annual would be completely unavailable, Starkie and his team at Starkie Brothers Garden Center worked to find alternatives for gardeners.

Starkie shared that farms in Suffolk County are the top agri-producers in the state of New York for bedding plants. He said dozens of growers on Long Island would be affected by loss of sales, affecting about 30 percent of farming revenue on Long Island.

Donna Moramarco, director of marketing at Martin Viette Nurseries of East Norwich and Manhasset, 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, said Starkie.

Starkie added that there are pesticides that cure the downy mildew, legal only for commercial growers. He said even if home gardeners find impatiens for sale, which have been treated by the growers, the plants would die once they are left untreated. He has heard of some stores and places on Long Island, which plan to try to sell the affected variety of impatiens.

Starkie’s advice to gardeners, “Don’t be fooled; I hate to see people spend hundreds of dollars, to have failure.” Many garden shop owners and plant distributors agree, gardeners should avoid planting impatiens for more than three years, up to five, for the mildew problem to be eradicated.