Gardeners can expect to find impatiens in short supply this year.
A fast-spreading disease is threatening the favorite flower, prompting some area garden centers to cut back on supplies or forgo selling the plants altogether.
The disease, impatiens downy mildew, is caused by a fungus-like organism. The disease stunts the plants’ growth, causes the leaves to turn yellow and drop, and eventually causes the plants to collapse.
It was first seen on bedding impatiens in the United Kingdom in 2003 and in the United States in 2010. In Northeast Ohio, dry conditions kept the disease at bay for most of last summer, until late-August rainfalls created the moist conditions it needed to flourish. Suddenly customers were calling garden centers, wondering what had happened to their impatiens.
The spores of the disease-causing organism are easily spread by wind or splashing water, and they live in the soil on infected plant debris — possibly for as long as five years, said Jim Chatfield, a horticulture educator with the Ohio State University Extension. That means impatiens could become infected from soil where diseased plants once grew, or from infected impatiens in a neighbor’s yard.
Once a plant is infected, it can’t be saved. And a plant can be infected long before it shows any symptoms of the disease.
That troubles garden center owner Lisa Graf.
She said her family’s business, Graf Growers Garden Center in Copley, decided not to sell impatiens this year.
“It was a gut-wrenching decision,” she said. Impatiens are the top-selling annual flower in the United States, and Graf said they’re a big source of income for the business.
She said the garden center considered offering the flowers and posting signs warning customers to plant at their own risk. But after long consideration, the operators decided they didn’t want to set their customers up for failure.
“Our goal has always been for our customers to be successful gardeners,” Graf said. Some buy multiple flats of impatiens, and those customers would lose a significant investment if the plants died, she said. “We just didn’t feel good about that.”
John Constantine Jr. of Constantine’s Garden Center in Richfield reached the same conclusion. He said he’ll post signs educating customers about the disease and pointing them to alternatives, but “I just can’t sell them [impatiens] with a clear conscience,” he said.
Petitti Garden Centers, a Northeast Ohio chain, expects word of the disease to reduce demand for impatiens and is cutting its supply by about 25 percent, said Noelle Akin, the company’s director of communications and education.
Akin said the company grows its own impatiens and has not had any sign of the disease in its greenhouses, although she added quickly, “I’m knocking on wood here.”
Dayton Nurseries in Norton is also cutting back on the quantity of impatiens it offers and pointing consumers to alternatives, but owner Tom Dayton said he’s recommending the use of fungicide for those who insist on planting the popular annuals.
Gardeners need to drench the impatiens with fungicide when they plant them and then reapply regularly, he said. That’s why he’s telling his customers to use the product only if they’re committed to keeping up with the application schedule.
“If you are a hit-or-skip kind of person, you might as well not plant impatiens,” he said.
Gardeners who insist on impatiens might want to buy them early, said Adam Yakuvik, store manager of Canton Road Garden Center in Springfield Township.
While the garden center intends to sells the flowers, Yakuvik said the seven or eight growers that supply his store are producing fewer this year. If customers wait until Memorial Day, “they may be scrounging,” he said.
Impatiens downy mildew affects primarily bedding impatiens, both single- and double-flowered types. It also affects native impatiens known as jewelweed, but the extent of the problem among those wildflowers isn’t clear, Chatfield said.
The disease does not affect New Guinea impatiens or Sunpatiens. Nor does it affect other types of plants, such as cucumbers or basil. While a number of plants are susceptible to diseases commonly called downy mildew, Chatfield said, those diseases are different from the one infecting impatiens.
No one is sure what the future will hold for impatiens. Because the disease is fairly new to the United States, researchers are scrambling to find solutions.
Chatfield hopes that with good sanitation and management in greenhouses that grow the flowers, impatiens could rebound. But for the near term, at least, masses of impatiens blooms will probably become an uncommon sight.
For Lisa Graf, that reality has been tough to accept.
“You could identify the stages of grief. I went through them all,” she said — even welling up when she saw a photo of a garden filled with impatiens.
“It was just the reality that we would never have that blanket of color.”
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also become a fan on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/mbbreck, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.