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I’m often asked if it’s safe to start growing common impatiens in our gardens again. What was once North America’s number one selling bedding plant and often touted as Mother Nature’s most perfect flower took a dramatic fall from favor when the common Impatiens Downy Mildew (IDW) strain of fungal disease swept most of the nation and wiped out gorgeous gardens in a matter of weeks. 

Surprisingly, the fungus that causes IDW was first found in the United States in the late 1800s – but it was the early 2000s before it began to rear its ugly head due to what some scientists call “the perfect storm” – a combination of heat and humidity that awakened this sleeping beast that destroyed entire crops across the United States.  By 2013, the disease was rampant on the East Coast and the New York Botanical Gardens recommended common impatiens no longer be planted. 

Oh, there were replacements to color up shade gardens that were pretty much disease free –  wax begonias, New Guinea impatiens and coleus, to name a few.  But none of these put out that intense nonstop color of common impatiens; were as easy to grow and care for and best yet were dirt cheap. Home owners could buy  whole flats of these pretties for 10 to 12 bucks.  

While common impatiens are still available at some garden centers and big boxes, the disease IDM is still a risk, especially with the crazy weather we have to deal with throughout the growing season. For me growing these plants is a crap shoot, and that’s a gamble I choose not to take. 

But the good news is researchers have been hybridizing the common impatiens walleriana, and PanAmerican Seed has developed the new Beacon series that contain genetics that have proven to be highly resistant to the dreaded IDW. In tests across Europe and the United States, Beacon Impatiens have survived and done well when grown next to IDW infected plants and have been successful replacements in plots where IDW disease ridden plants had just been removed. 

On their website, Burpee (burpee.com) is now offering the new Beacon Impatiens as both seeds and plants. A packet of 25 seeds runs $5.95 and 24 plants ( 6 each of 4 colors) is priced at  $29.95. 

Beacon Impatiens should be available at independent garden centers and nurseries but I doubt they will be priced at $12 a flat. Still, I have a few dark spots in the garden that could use some real sparkle and I think Beacons might be that ray of light. 

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to Yardener.com and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at detroitnews.com/homestyle.

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