Impatiens are dying; choose alternative shade plants instead

New Guinea impatiens, seen here, can be a good alternative to the impatiens that you may be more familiar with. The common impatiens, called is being obliterated by downy mildew.
New Guinea impatiens, seen here, can be a good alternative to the impatiens that you may be more familiar with. Our familiar impatiens is being obliterated by downy mildew. This New Guinea impatiens is ‘Sonic’ light pink. Photo from Mischler’s Florist and Greenhouses.

by Connie Oswald Stofko

For decades, impatiens has been the go-to flower for the shade. But now that a blight is wiping out these wonderful flowers, you’ll have to rethink your plant choices for shady gardens.

Some garden centers won’t sell impatiens at all this year, while others will grow a limited supply but will sell them without guarantees.

Don’t expect to find impatiens at all next year.

What should you plant instead? A couple of local events can help you decide what to plant in your shady garden this year and in future years.

Background on the impatiens problem

impatiens around tree before downy mildew disease Margery Daughtrey
Impatiens around tree before downy mildew. Photo by Margery Daughtrey.

It’s always been challenging to find showy flowers for shade gardens. That’s why gardeners have treasured impatiens (specifically, Impatiens walleriana.)

They’re pretty annuals that would bloom all summer—in the shade. The flowers come in a wide variety of colors and the plant itself has a lovely mounding shape. Up to this point, it was a very reliable plant. It was relatively inexpensive, too.

Unfortunately, we can’t count on impatiens anymore. It is being killed by a disease called downy mildew. The blight struck Western New York last year and is expected to return again this year. Your plants can die quickly. They might be fine on Friday, and when you look at them on Monday, they’re dead.

impatiens after downy mildew disease Margery Daughtrey
Impatiens after downy mildew. Photo by Margery Daughtrey.

There is nothing that you as a home gardener can do to prevent or treat downy mildew. There are no sprays to make or to purchase. There is nothing you can put in the soil. It doesn’t matter how much you water or don’t water. Here’s a fact sheet, co-written by Margery Daughtrey, senior extension associate with Cornell University. (If you still think you have a remedy, read all the comments on our article from last year. Nothing will work.)

If downy mildew is in your garden and gets on your impatiens, your impatiens will die.

Downy mildew is airborne and it stays in the soil. If you were lucky and your impatiens plants weren’t affected last year, don’t count on being lucky again. Your impatiens probably will be killed. If your plants were affected last year, they will die again this year.

Lobelia by Photo by André Karwath via Wikimedia Commons
Lobelia offers beautiful flowers and great color. Photo by André Karwath via Wikimedia Commons.

Bottom line: If you plant impatiens this year, they probably will be killed by downy mildew.

One bright note: This disease won’t spread to other plants in your garden.

What garden centers are doing

We spoke to the folks at two garden centers who are taking different approaches to this problem.

Mischler’s Florist and Greenhouses in Williamsville will grow and sell a limited number of impatiens this year with signs warning customers that they can’t guarantee the plants once the plants leave the garden center.

Foxglove from Mischler's in Williamsville NY
Foxglove is a perennial with interesting bell-shaped flowers. Photo from Mischler’s Florist and Greenhouses.

There is a treatment that can be applied in the greenhouse, so the plants you buy will be healthy. Unfortunately, the treatment lasts only a few weeks.

“There is nothing we can do once the plants leave the premises to ensure that they will live,” said Mark Yadon, vice president at Mischler’s. He wants to educate people, but said that sometimes education goes only so far.

“Much of the time, people have to experience things for themselves,” he said. “If a gardener hasn’t had a problem, it’s hard for that gardener not to buy impatiens.”

However, “This will be the last year we sell impatiens,” Yadon added.

Lockwood’s Greenhouses in Hamburg won’t sell impatiens at all this year.

Because downy mildew overwinters in the soil for five years, you should refrain from planting impatiens for at least five years, said Jill Kisker, grower at Lockwood’s. Otherwise, you’re helping to prolong the blight. You can read more about their position.

Astilbe from Mischler's in Williamsville NY
Astilbe comes in a variety of colors and adds some height to your shade garden, too. Photo from Mischler’s Florist and Greenhouses.

Companies are trying to breed impatiens that are resistant to downy mildew, she noted, but until then, you should look for alternatives to impatiens.

Learn about alternatives at two events

Two upcoming events will help you choose alternatives to impatiens.

free class on shade gardening without impatiens will be held at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, April 20 at Lockwood’s Greenhouses, 4484 Clark St., Hamburg. Sally Cunningham, gardening expert, and Lockwood’s expert production professionals will show you many fine shade gardening plants and how to use them for impressive displays. They will also suggest perennials you can begin to incorporate into those spaces the impatiens used to fill. Some garden design handouts and plant groupings will be provided.

A 49-cent perennial sale will be held from Friday, April 19 through Saturday, April 27 at Mischler’s Florist and Greenhouses, 118 South Forest Rd., Williamsville. You can see the entire list of sale plants here. Notice that the list indicates which plants work in the shade. (The plants are sold only in packs of four for $1.96 per pack or in flats [12 packs per flat] for $23.52 per flat.)

Heuchera from National Garden Bureau
Heuchera is a perennial that exhibits great color in its leaves, as you can see in this collage of leaves. Photo from National Garden Bureau.

Alternatives to impatiens

There is no single plant that has all the wonderful traits of impatiens, said Kisker of Lockwoods. Other plants don’t have the wide range of colors or they don’t bloom as long or they’re more expensive.

You may have to get creative to fill the void.

Yadon of Mischler’s recommends using annuals sparingly and taking this opportunity to develop a perennial garden in your shady space.

columbine in Amherst NY by Connie Oswald Stofko
Columbine has flowers that are delicate and complicated in shape. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko.

“If you get perennials going and add splashes of color (with annuals), it won’t be nearly as costly,” he said.

Since it’s hard to find long-lasting, colorful flowers for the shade, add color to your shady garden with plants that have colorful leaves, such as coleus, he said. You can also create interest with shape and texture, using plants such as ferns and caladium. Instead of relying on a large block of solid color as you have done in the past with impatiens, use a variety of plants to add interest.

Here are some alternatives:

New Guinea impatiens. Although they have similar names, the New Guinea impatiens is different from Impatiens walleriana, the plant that is being killed by downy mildew. New Guinea impatiens aren’t affected by the disease.

New Guinea impatiens have flowers similar to the common impatiens and have a good range of color. These annuals are more expensive than common impatiens.

Begonia-Sparks Will Fly from Burpee Home Gardens
There are many kinds of begonias, including ‘Sparks Will Fly’. Photo from Burpee Home Gardens

See a photo of New Guinea impatiens at the beginning of this article.

Begonia. This is another annual that comes in many colors. Mischler’s mentioned ‘Crackling Fire’, which comes in white, buttery yellow, rose and orange. Lockwood’s suggested ‘Sparks Will Fly’, seen at left, which has orange flowers and very dark leaves.

Lobelia. Lobelia, an annual, offers stunning color, as you can see from the photo earlier in this article.

Fuchsia. Fuchsia is another annual with a big wow factor. It packs a big punch with dramatic, vibrant color. You often see it growing in hanging baskets. See the photo below.

fuchsia_by Claudia Meyer
Fuchsia, an annual, has a flower with an interesting shape and dramatic color.

Heuchera, also known as coral bells. The National Garden Bureau named 2012 the Year of the Heuchera. This plant is native to North America, but breeders have introduced many new varieties that didn’t exist just ten years ago– see the photo earlier in this article. Not only are these perennial plants aesthetically pleasing, but they have become stronger, fuller and more disease resistant. You can get more information on heuchera and see more photos at the National Garden Bureau.

Hosta. There is a huge variety of hostas available. Mike Shadrack and Kathy Guest Shadrack of Hamburg wrote The Book of Little Hostas: 200 Small, Very Small, and Mini Varieties. Two hundred varieties– and that’s just the little ones! These plants are valued more for their leaves than for their flowers, but they do get flowers. Some of the flowers are fragrant. See photo below.

Columbine. This plant has such a pretty, lacy flower, and many are bi-colored. It’s a perennial and will reseed, or you can collect the seeds and spread them where you’d like new plants to grow. See a photo earlier in this article.

Hosta from Mischlers in Williamsville
Hosta is valued for its leaves, but it gets a flower, too. Photo from Mischler’s Florist and Greenhouses.

Foxglove.  This perennial (actually a biennial) has bell-shaped flowers. The flower comes in many colors and can have interesting, vivid markings. Its Latin name is Digitalis— the heart medicine by that name comes from this plant. See a photo earlier in this article.

Astilbe. The flowers of these perennials grow in feathery plumes. Astilbe is about two feet tall, so it can add some height to your shade garden. See a photo earlier in this article.

Caladium. These plants all have leaves shaped like elephant’s ears, but they come in a wide range of colors. They can add a tropical feeling to your garden. See some images of caldium here.

Bergenia. This perennial is also called pigsqueak because of the sound made when you rub its leaves together. Bergenia is an evergreen plant with shiny, round leaves. It gets pink flowers in early spring. See some bergenia images here.

Jacob’s ladder. This perennial comes in varieties with green leaves and with variegated leaves. The flowers can be white, pink, blue or yellow.

Lamium. Lamium, a perennial, is often grown as a ground cover.  See a photo of lamium here.

There are many more plants that could work in your garden in place of impatiens. Check out these articles to get more ideas on what local gardeners have done with their shady gardens.

What will you plant in your shady garden this year? Please leave a comment.

 UPDATE: See predictions for how well impatiens might fare during the summer of 2014 in Western New York.

See more articles concerning impatiens here.


66 Comments on “Impatiens are dying; choose alternative shade plants instead

  1. Played it safe this year. Bought impatiens walleria, potted them with bagged soil and a little peat soil mixed in. Removed old soil from last year. Everywhere else, sunny vinca and my trusty fibrous begonias. We’ll get thru this!

  2. The only real replacement I’ve found is fibrous rooted begonias. Nothing else flowers until frost. Marigolds are fine in sun, but the little begonias stay small and seem to not care if they’re in sun or partial shade. Plants like petunias, and especially lobelia are NOT susbstitutes…they flower for just a few weeks. And colorful foliage just isn’t the same. And astilbes? And other perennials? You’re kidding! Like almost all perennials, they cost much more AND worse, they bloom only for a couple of weeks!

  3. Finally! Info on why my impatiens have petered out in a few weeks for the last two years. I’ve ended up pulling them out by July. I’ve suspected it was marketing…to get us to spring for the New G. more expensive (and larger-leaved) ones which always do beautifully, and come in great colors. I’ve been using them for large pots, and they make big mounded plants right up until frost. All colors seem to be the same as to strength and size. I’m betting the prices on these will slowly come down (somewhat) as all of us realize what’s happening. Thanks to all for the great information.

  4. Well, we’re into spring of 2017. I would really like to give those problem impatiens a try this year. Are they safe to plant or am I still taking a gamble on them? I did call the greenhouse where our Supermarket ACME plants come from, he says he hasn’t experienced any problems.

    Any thoughts?

  5. Glad you mentioned The Bounce variety. Got one for a pot last year, it really did well. I only saw it and bought it in the color shown on this site, but that was good enough for me.

  6. I went with in-ground New guinea impatiens this year, they are not any more tolerable to sun than the common ones, not until they get big and interlock each other. Best bet is sun until late morning cutoff.

    However, a couple of potted Sun Patiens I have are much more robust, can take direct afternoon sun, as long as the pot soil is kept moist.

  7. Sarah, I’m so glad your impatiens are doing well. They probably will do fine for awhile no matter what because growers can use a treatment that will protect them for several weeks. I have my fingers crossed for you that they will continue to do well through July and August.

  8. i planted impatience this spring. They seem to be doing fine and I planted them all over the place. Except in one spot that doesn’t get much rain, even though we’ve had plenty, they need to be watered more than I’ve done. That’s on me. Need to add a bit of fertilizer there too. Think I’ll do that now while I’m thinking about it.

  9. I’ll be doing a post on the status of impatiens this coming Tuesday (May 12, 2015). Yes, the disease is still with us and is still affecting impatiens. Yes, it looks like Bounce is a good alternative.

  10. I’m thinking the affected impatiens variety are still a no go for 2015? If so, I found one called Bounce. More expensive than a typical market pack, but unaffected by blight. Looks good in a pot, saw a photo of one.

  11. I am so glad it isn’t me. For the last two years 2014 and 2013 I have
    been kicking myself trying to figuire out was wrong.

  12. Adele, I don’t know what the situation is like in Milwaukee. In Western New York, I would tell you that if you have experienced downy mildew killing your impatiens, don’t plant impatiens. The disease is in the environment. You might try growing them in pots with clean soil, but the disease might still kill your flowers. There are lots of suggestions of alternative plants in this article and in the comments section. See the comments on an earlier article for a little more insight into the soil issue. You might also contact the Cooperative Extension in your area. I hope that helps.

  13. To Adele: There’s been many suggestions here, and I have one I may try next year – tuberous begonias, potted or in hanging baskets.

  14. Help
    My husband has applied leaf mulch from last year from the citys mulch piles. All my Impatients have died =350 every last 2 years. I have a lot of huge trees, so shade is my environmnent for flowers beds..I have read all the details of the blight of impatients. I live in Milwaukee, Wi. What should I do to repair my soil and what should I plant? thank you

  15. My end of summer observation on my fibrous begonias as an alternative to impatiens – they seem to thrive better in sun. I see them in full sun locations, like around business campuses, they are huge!

    I’ll still plant them, but will try New Guineas in those partial sun areas next year.

  16. Joe, thanks for your polite response to the commenter on the impatiens post. That was a spam comment that slipped through. I’ve deleted it.

  17. Football, this forum is about impatiens and alternative shade plants. Did you post here accidently?

  18. That’s what happened!!!! I lone coral bells and hostas. And used to fill in with impatiens but be wary of the spotted nettle. Although beautiful, it spreads like wild fire! If you need to fill in a huge void, fine. Otherwise stick with heuchera hosta and coral bells and fill in with the lobelia, which in my experience tends to dry out quickly.

  19. Yes Connie that is the species. You have it right. Put some in a glass of cold water and it is quite beautiful…. It has to,be under the water of course.J

  20. Oh, Julie Ann, we had such high hopes! It seems that if you keep it in a sheltered spot it might not be affected by downy mildew, or it might not be affected as quickly. But it seems that once downy mildew finds the plant, there really is nothing you can do. Yes, I think horticulturists will work hard to develop new hybrids. Impatiens is important to gardeners, which means it’s important to plant growers.

    I hadn’t heard of the jewel plant or jewelweed. I think this is the plant you mean:

    Thanks for keeping us posted.

  21. Sandy, I’m glad your impatiens are still doing well. I’m actually surprised at the number of people whose plants are still thriving.
    Joe, thanks for your note about fibrous wax begonias. Some people don’t have the time or inclination to water, so this would be a good plant for them. And of course, it’s not affected by downy mildew.

  22. My experimental Impatioms finally secumbed to the fungus this week. I have chopped off the tops with shears hoping that they might find some new vigor.
    However the planting in pots seems to be still doing well. They are on a different location at the back of the house. The others had been sprayed with a fungicide at least three times. They all had been beautiful till now. Anyone who does not get this fungus should try to keep some over winter. We should all make an effort to find a few plants which are resistant . Eventually we will findi a resistant strain. I am certain that there will be a few labs and students looking at this now.
    An interesting thing is that the wild Impations are not affected. We call these the Jewel plants here. They are very silver when they are put into water. They have an orange flower. My guess is that these should be crossed with the hybrids In Some way to Impart the resistance required to the fungus. JAL

  23. My observations on growing wax fibrous begonias for the first time –

    They hardly need watering, unless grown in a pot. The more sun they get the larger they grow. They show no sign of fungus.

  24. We did get some impatiens this year. We planted them in planters and they came out absolutely wonderful. I can’t believe how large they grew both in height & width. We got lucky. I will look at some of the other plants that have been mentioned for next year. I will miss the impatiens, they are one of my favorites.

  25. You are welcome 🙂

    I just found out about the impatiens and am sad about this disease and the impact on these plants.

  26. We had terrible problems with Trumpet vines! . They are difficult to kill once established on a wooden deck or home. They go deep into the soil and ours were literally tearing apart our deck.

    Their branches or vines get thick and strong and they hold fast to wood.. We finally got rid of them by putting a special black cover under the deck on top of any remaining vine pieces – after we sprayed them with a strong weed killer.

    I’ d only use them on a trellis which wasn’t too close to my home. They ave lovely flowers.

  27. Linda, I’ve read that the roots of a trumpet vine can damage the foundation of the house and even grow into the basement. Other people say it can damage the facade of the house if you let it climb up the house. The vine gets a woody stem that, after several years, resembles the trunk of tree. (See the photo toward the end of this article.) As you can see from the photo, a trumpet vine gets big. I’m not sure what would happen if you let it spread on the ground. Because it spreads so well (some people say this plant is invasive) I think it could take over the yard. It can spread by seed and by runners, too. I would recommend that you have it climb on some kind of an arbor or trellis away from the house.

  28. Connie, I took your trumpet vine from the plant exchange. Why do you say not to plant it near the foundation of the house? Also does it have to climb or can it spread on the ground?

  29. I love I patients in my window boxes and will be planting them again this year. Just bought some.

  30. Nancy, if you plant impatiens this year, they almost certainly will die. If you want plants that will thrive, don’t use impatiens! New Guinea impatiens aren’t affected by downy mildew, and they’re one of the first plants that all the experts mention when they suggest alternatives. New Guinea impatiens are recommended for shade. One drawback is that the plants are more expensive than the common impatiens. If you’re unsure what to choose, go to a good garden center that has professionals on staff and explain what your growing conditions are. They’ll help you find something suitable. I’m confident in recommending any of the garden centers that currently advertise with us.

  31. I normally have impatience in both of my all shade window boxes and love them. I didn’t have any problems last year, but I’m nervous to use impatiences this year. Would new guinea imp. Do OK in all shade?

  32. Joe, thank you for some good news! I’m glad to hear that gardeners are finding good results with flowers other than impatiens. I’ll be looking this summer to see which flowers people are most pleased with. I’ll take that as one vote for begonias with a nod to ancient history.

  33. I decided to go with begonias. I’m liking them already, with their bronze shiny leaves and compact shape. I have a partial shade/sun area, going to go four across and three rows deep.

    It’s gonna be my very own “Roman Legion”.

    Happy Gardening!

  34. I love torenia and one that no one has mentioned–browallia white comes in white and lavendar. Both are great in the shade. Although they can be hard to find (especially the browallia) I’ve been using them for years and even though their color range is not wide, they are valuable garden plants. I’m SO saddened, though, about this impatiens blight! It’s always been one of my faves…

  35. You know, I thought about that! Holy, this fungus is a tough one.

    I think I’ll go with the new guinea’s and torenia for the partial sun area. Although, the first is pricey and the other is not quite as striking.

    Thank you Connie.

  36. Joe, planting impatiens in hanging pots doesn’t work because the disease is air borne. Plants at sidewalk level may show symptoms before those in hanging pots, but local gardeners who had hanging pots in protected areas still were affected last year. There just doesn’t seem to be any way around this. You can learn more in the comments that were left on the article I did last year.

  37. How about growing impatiens in baskets or pots with packaged potting soil?

    Agreed, they do look more striking in planted in long rows in the ground, but that won’t work for a long while.

  38. Eileen, heuchera is familiar to me as a shade plant, but I didn’t realize how many shade gardeners are fans of foxglove. It sounds like foxglove might become a new favorite of gardeners switching from impatiens. Thanks for sharing.

  39. I have been using fozglove the last 2 years – I love them in the shade,as well as heuchera.

  40. For a shade planting with longer blooming, I love foxglove and it reseeds itself. I plant nasturiums from seed and only have had aphids on ones grown in pots.

  41. Kathi, I think a lot of people don’t realize that different local garden centers carry different plants. We’re blessed in Western New York to have so many independent, locally owned shops. I encourage people to drive a little bit and see what other shops have. Most shade gardeners that I talk to recommend heuchera.

  42. We found some beautiful Heuchera ‘Caramel’ at Zehrs on the Lake. I think Heuchera has come a long way with the variety of colors that are offered. They are a perennial and absolutely looked beautiful over the winter. Might want to give them a try. Great shade plant.

  43. The Red Monkey flower is Mimulus cardinalis and there is a yellow form which may be a bit hardier called Mimulus guttatus. hey do grow best in areAs that hold water. It is very low growing and does spread. I love nasturtiums and have grown them in part sun and they do well. I quit growing them because for me they are an aphid magnet. On the plus side, nasturtiums can be added to salads as they are completely edible.

  44. Pat, nasturtiums are pretty. I looked them up and they seem to be for full sun. I’m glad to hear they’ll grow in partial shade, too.

  45. Penny, I’ve used some of these plants– everyone should lily of the valley somewhere in their yard! Ajuga gets a pretty purple flower and can really spread. That is nice when you want to fill in a space, but for me, it was too invasive and I pulled it out. I don’t know monkey flower, but I want to try it just for the name!

  46. I have partial shade and plant nasturiums. They fill in nicely and the leaves are pretty as well as the flowers.

  47. I have not planted impatiens for years due to this blight. I too have used Lobelia and New Guinea impatiens in substitution.

  48. more plants for shady areas
    Pulmonaria – low growing perennial spring blooming
    Bleeding Heart – clump forming perennial spring bloomer
    Ajuga -spring blooming perennial ground cover deer resistant
    Mimulus cardinalis (Monkey flower) moist shade perennial with red flowers.
    Dwarf Periwinkles – Perennial that will bloom from spring to early summer. can be grown in hanging baskets as well as in ground and will spread
    Primrose – cool season perennial
    Lily of the valley – spring blooming Perennial that spreads by underground runners so it can be invasive but very pretty in the right spot.

  49. I’m going to try a few Impatiens, just to see what happens. Thought about snapdragons and a few pelargoniums . I shall use more summer bulbs such as gladioli,and tubers such as Dahlia. However many of these don’t grow too well on my garden so it is going to be quite a challenge. Snapdragons , phlox, and many of the compositiae family will grow quite well but it might prove to be more expensive than the usual five or six flats of impatiens. Yellow is not my colour but how about a bed of marigolds? We will see what happens when we all report back at the end of the season and there are sure to be some nices surprises
    JulieAnn Lockett.

  50. I hope to use blue lobelia and yellow begonias instead of impatiens this season. Just wish they filled out as fast as impatiens did.

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