Indian balsam

I have grown quite a few annuals this year but this one was a bit accidental. I am not sure when I bought the seeds but, when I was going through the tin this spring I saw the packet and thought I ought to give them a try again – it has been literally decades since I grew Impatiens balsamina.

I find all impatiens fascinating plants with their curious, translucent, fleshy stems and beautiful, spurred flowers. I will get pilloried for saying as much but I think Himalayan balsam (I. glandulifera) is a beautiful plant and I was amazed to find one popping up in the garden this year. But back to Indian balsam. Native to (er) India and Myanmar, this frost-tender annual has been cultivated in the West for centuries and, perhaps, enjoyed its greatest popularity in the middle of the 19th century.

It is easy to raise from seed, as a half hardy annual, and grows rapidly. Although I pricked out two dozen seedlings into cell trays I was never sure where I was going to put them and in the end they got planted along the drive between the apples, in what is possibly the worst soil in the garden. They were not watered either and yet they have grown really well and are full of flowers.

The commonest criticism of them is that the flowers are rather hidden among the leaves and that is true. This means that they are not much good for bedding and are perhaps best in pots so you can see the plants from the side. The flowers come in a wide range of colours including bicolors though mine are not especially diverse in colour and few have the double flowers that they are supposed to have. The doubles are lovely – like small roses, but even the single flowers are pretty and bumble bees love them. Incidentally, that is one of the criticisms of Himalayan balsam that is now naturalised and the focus of much effort to eradicate – that the flowers are so attractive to bees that other, native flowers, do not get a look in.

Of course, being an impatiens, the seed pods of this plant explode when ripe so, in mild climates, this can self seed and possibly become a nuisance, but, growing only to about 60cm at the most (my plants are 40cm high) I don’t think it has much potential as a threat in Ireland.

I am not sure this is a plant I would grow every year but, if you are a bit jaded with annuals and want something easy and quick and a bit different then this has much to commend it.

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2 Comments on “Indian balsam”

  1. Paddy Tobin
    August 31, 2020 at 9:11 am #

    I have thought I. tinctoria an attractive plant but have resisted planting it in the garden as I fear they may have the ability to self-seed in the style of the Himalayan Balsam. I’m quite happy to admire them in your photographs.

    • thebikinggardener
      August 31, 2020 at 5:19 pm #

      I do not have I. tinctoria at present but will add it to the garden. It is a gorgeous thing though I have given it to people who thought it an ugly plant – with lovely flowers. It is pretty hardy but, in many years of growing it I never knew it to set seeds so I think you needn’t worry about it spreading too widely.

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