Once upon a time there was

At this time of year I tend to reminisce or at least think about the past. I was looking through old images and will post some of them over the next few days.

Once upon a time there was a plant that was found on every windowsill. It was a common ‘office plant’, rubbing shoulders with spider plants and, if it was lucky, a scrawny rubber plant. It thrived on cold coffee poured out of plastic vending cups and, if neglected during its owner’s summer holiday, always managed to recover. And if the saucer, the one that remained after the cup was broken, was left with water in, the plant survived wet roots too. What was even better was that if it fell over and a piece broke off, it could be rooted in that same old vending cup, but filled with water, and the youngster was bound to find a new home. This was Impatiens walleriana, known to one and all as busy Lizzie.

Then some enterprising plant breeders had the idea to turn it into a bedding plant, breeding for compact habit and masses of flowers. In its new incarnation it spread like a rash. It was adaptable to many climates and was easy to grow from seed (though quite a challenge for amateurs). New colours and variations were produced and it became the mainstay of bedding and patio pots and baskets. It was so good that it usurped almost every other bedding plant. Seedlings flowered when small, so sold on sight in nurseries, and they just kept blooming till stopped by frost. Their growth was so dense that they even suppressed weeds. They were the perfect bedding plant.

They were not great for wildlife but they did shed their petals as the flowers aged. This was generally regarded a good thing – they were self-cleaning – although my old neighbour refused to grow them because she had to sweep her paths every day!

There were semi-doubles, grown from seed, and full doubles, some with variegated leaves, grown from cuttings. They dominated the world.

And then disaster. Downy mildew struck, and the plants, and their popularity, collapsed. It spread because almost every garden contained the plants. A wet summer (in the UK) caused the spread of this fungal disease and suddenly it was impossible to grow busy Lizzies. The New Guinea types with large flowers and sparse branching were unaffected but these were never as popular. And, ever since, busy Lizzies have been just a memory.

I had mixed feelings about this. I was as guilty of over-using them as anyone. I made chicken wire towers to create columns of colour, used them in ‘conjoined’ baskets to make globes of colour, and wrote about all the latest developments. But their demise also meant that other plants had a chance for a place in the sun. Begonias were the obvious shoe-in and their development has been given a huge boost. Both plants are useful in part shade but, unfortunately, both are prone to vine weevil attack. It is one reason why I always stick up for French marigolds – much maligned but much easier. But that is a whole different story.

For now, enjoy what was.

‘Fanciful mixed’
‘Fiesta Stardust Pink’
‘Fiesta Ole Frost’
‘Fusion Glow Improved’

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One Comment on “Once upon a time there was”

  1. tonytomeo
    December 22, 2022 at 3:05 pm #

    It has been available for a while. We have some at work. I only ‘heard’ that new cultivars that are resistant to downy mildew were being developed, but never actually heard anything specific about these cultivars. Those that appeared in the nursery lacked names (!), and look just like the sort that were popular earlier. They just appeared without any explanation. I suspect that they are just available here because downy mildew is not such a serious problem outside of the nursery. Really, they only became unavailable because the disease was such a serious problem only for the growers.

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