Grow Abundant Garden Balsam

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Photo by Rebecca Martin

Like most gardening households, mine occasionally gets taken in by a seed mix’s promise of paradise. Most of the time, the yield is disappointing: a few unhappy plants instead of the blanket of blooms and lush foliage pictured on the packet. And we swear we’ll never fall for the hype again.

Despite this checkered past, my husband sowed a shade mix last summer in a partly sunny bed with average soil. A few weeks later, we had a thick stand of … something. As the days passed, the seedlings’ stems lengthened and turned red, and sawtooth-edged leaves unfolded. We nearly pulled up the unfamiliar plants, but decided to wait because they didn’t look like any weeds we knew.

After a couple of months, these odd plants burst into a vivid display of fuchsia, violet, pale-pink, and white blossoms. Some quick research showed us this flower was Impatiens balsamina. Its common names include “garden balsam,” “lady’s slipper” (a different plant from lady’s slipper orchids), and “touch-me-not.” Our little plot of balsam put on an impressive show for weeks, until the stalks loaded up with seedpods and the plants stopped blooming.

A Much-Loved Cultivar

The genus name Impatiens is familiar to many gardeners as I. walleriana, the most popular annual flower in U.S. gardens today. But our grandparents and great-grandparents knew and loved I. balsamina. The original Impatiens flower, I. balsamina was considered an essential bedding plant until the mid-20th century, when hybrid I. walleriana came onto the scene.

Photo by Rebecca Martin

I. walleriana’s newness had a natural appeal for mid-century gardeners. Besides being a cutting-edge hybrid in its day, this annual display blooms in a very different fashion from its heirloom relative. I. walleriana’s flat, open blossoms lie on top of the plant for passing gardeners to admire, while I. balsamina’s are tucked under a crown of pointed leaves. Making I. balsamina’s blooms even more difficult to see is the fact that they grow out from the leaf axils, very close to the stem and below the plant’s top leaf cluster. To improve the plant’s floral display, some gardeners carefully remove a few leaves.

Once as popular among Victorian gardeners as I. walleriana is today, I. balsamina can be found in most 19th-century seed catalogs for flowering plants. In its 1845 directory, Hovey & Co. of Boston offered 11 different balsam color options, including striped, mottled, and spotted. Vick’s Floral Guide for 1888 lauded balsam as “one of the most beautiful and popular of our Annuals [sic],” and recommended table displays of its flowers “in a shallow dish or basket of moist sand or moss,” presumably to better view the blossoms. Washburn & Curtis’ 1862 catalog praised balsams as “magnificent conservatory or out-door [sic] plants, producing their gorgeous masses of beautiful brilliant-colored flowers in the greatest profusion.”

Photo by Rebecca Martin

Although 19th-century gardeners popularized I. balsamina, the plant had been discovered and cultivated several hundred years earlier. Believed to be native to India and Myanmar, garden balsam somehow spread around the world from Southeast Asia. I. balsamina had landed in Europe by the 16th century, and in North America by the 18th century. Thomas Jefferson, later a U.S. president, first grew garden balsam at one of his Virginia plantations in 1767. He liked the plant so much that he was still ordering seeds from Philadelphia nearly five decades later. Garden balsam remained popular in the U.S. throughout the 1800s.

The blossoms of garden balsam have been used to make fashion statements. Girls at the turn of the 20th century hooked the blossom’s spur in their ears and wore the flower as an earring, which explains another of the plant’s colloquial names: “jewelweed.” In Korea, young women have traditionally dyed their fingernails orange-red in spring using I. balsamina blossoms, known locally as bongseonhwa. (You can watch a video of this process here.) Other Asian cultures have used garden balsam blossoms to dye hair. And finally, in yet another reference to fashion, one of I. balsamina’s common names is “lady’s slipper” because of its resemblance to lady’s slipper orchids, whose blossoms are named for footwear. (Learn more about these orchids in “The Lovely Lady’s Slipper.”)

Photo by Rebecca Martin

Besides these decorative uses, I. balsamina also has medicinal purposes, and its leaves and seeds are edible. Traditional Asian folk medicine promotes the ingestion of garden balsam to promote blood circulation and relieve pain. In Bangladesh, balsam is called dopati, and the flowers are used to treat burns. In the Philippines, the leaves are pounded and used as a poultice for treating lesions caused by herpetic whitlow. In the U.S., garden balsam has a folksy reputation for being good at controlling the itchiness of poison ivy rashes. Garden balsam’s pain-relieving properties have been borne out by a 2012 study that found the flowers had a measurable effect on the central nervous system of mice. Other scientific studies have also found antifungal, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory effects.

Bountiful Balsam Blooms

Folk medicine practitioners don’t have to worry about garden balsam being in short supply, as a single plant can produce more than 100 pods. Conducting observations in my own garden, I plucked seedpods from random plants and counted the seeds inside. Each seedpod held between 12 and 17 individual seeds. Next, I counted the number of seedpods on just one stalk of one multibranched plant; that number was 24. I did the math, and realized that single plant had likely produced about 125 seeds. And — here’s the scary part — there were between 35 and 40 plants growing in our backyard. This, combined with the fact that I. balsamina seeds don’t need soil cover to germinate, means I’m slightly concerned about next year.

Photo by Rebecca Martin

Another common name for garden balsam is “touch-me-not,” from the explosive way its seedpods break open and discharge their contents. Even the slightest touch on a dried pod can cause it to blow, distributing all those seeds onto the soil surface, right where they want to be. (Thus, the genus name, Impatiens, comes from the Latin word meaning “impatient.”) So you see how frightfully easy it is for I. balsamina to reseed in your garden. In fact, I. balsamina is considered invasive in some nations with tropical climates, including the Philippines, Costa Rica, and Cuba, where the plant will flower and reproduce via seeds year-round. Another factor that encourages its spread is that garden balsam is considered a habitat generalist, meaning it can tolerate shade and is adaptable to different soils and environments.

Photo by Getty Images/membio

Despite some trepidation about rampant reseeding, I’m actually looking forward to next year’s show. In my Zone 6a garden, frost-sensitive garden balsam flowered prolifically from July to October, a time when most other annuals in my area had already played out. Its brilliant blossoms brought color to a dark spot all the way to the first frost.

Balsam Seed Sources

Garden balsam can bear single or double blooms, depending on the cultivar. Some types will produce full, camellia-style blossoms, which were very popular at the turn of the 20th century.

Growing Garden Balsam

Photo by Getty Images/MANORANJAN MISHRA

Botanical name:Impatiens balsamina

Common names: Garden balsam, camphor plant, touch-me-not, lady’s slipper

Family: Balsaminaceae

Native range: Southeast Asia

Easy-to-grow balsam is an annual that self-sows readily in Zones 2 to 11. Be sure to plant it in a place where you won’t mind a repeat appearance for years to come.

Balsam prefers full sun to part shade, and grows nicely in well-drained, regular-to-rich soil. As this is a tender annual, wait until all risk of frost has passed to sow seed or transplant seedlings into the garden. The seed needs to remain on the surface of the soil. To get earlier blooms, you can start the seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before your area’s final frost, and harden off the plants before transplanting in the garden.

Photo by Getty Images/Kadek Bonit Permadi

You can pinch back the young stems to encourage branching, but this isn’t necessary, as balsam has sturdy stems and its average height is only 2 feet. If you do encourage branching, give the plants plenty of room, at least 1 foot. To encourage balsam to bloom all season long, you’ll need to deadhead or remove seedpods as they form. Stop removing the seedpods at least a month before your first average frost to encourage reseeding.

Rebecca Martin is editor-in-chief for Mother Earth Gardener and a lifelong fan of dirty fingernails. She enjoys experimenting with unfamiliar plants in her urban garden.

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