The Coastal Star

Along the Coast: Homeowners find alternatives as fungus wipes out impatiens

The flower beds of Gail Brown’s Delray Beach house are
filled with 1,400 New Guinea impatiens. Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star

By Antigone Barton

Every October, for each of the last 20 years, Gail Brown has surrounded her white-pillared, white-trimmed gray house with 2,000 white impatiens, creating a vista that stops passing drivers, sparks countless conversations, and earned her the informal title of “the White Impatiens Lady.”

Then in early February this year, her plants began to droop one day. A few leaves turned yellow, a few green stalks lost their flowers. Within three days, they had all collapsed. Brown’s garden was indistinguishable from any other hit by a plague exclusive to impatiens that has swept the state this season, taking out hundreds of thousands of the popular plants countywide. 

The flowers were felled by downy mildew, a fungus that had recently appeared in Europe and then in other states in this country, but has not been seen in Florida since the mid-1960s. Its path has been swift and devastating here, leaving gardens and community entrances barren, nurseries bereft and landscapers scrambling for replacements.

Bob Glynn of Delray Garden Center replenished Brown’s garden with 1,400 New Guinea impatiens, which are not affected by downy mildew. The substitute, with darker, richer, waxy green leaves and slightly larger flowers, won’t get as voluminous as her former garden, and the sight of them is “not as dramatic,” she says. “But I will say, they are lovely and gracious bedding.”

She and the many others who rely on impatiens to infuse the Florida winter months with color will have time to grow accustomed to the new look; landscapers say it will be about five years before impatiens can thrive again here.

New Guinea Impatiens

In the meantime, however, Glynn has seen about 50,000 plants felled by the disease.

“And I’m just a little guy,” he added. There is no stopping the disease, which he first saw in the beginning of this year, and which is airborne.

“People need to be educated on this,” Glynn said. He has continued to see the plants sold, he said. “It’s a shame. The plants are all going to be diseased and die in a few weeks.”

As impatiens vanish from landscapes, some homeowners are planning a head start on summer, with pentas and vincas, which some growers have started supplying earlier than usual, said Joe Mignano of the Boynton Beach-based Mignano Tree Care. 

“We’re putting color back,” he said.

Mignano, whose clients include homeowner associations and estates running the length of State Road A1A, has pulled more than 100,000 impatiens since first spotting diseased impatiens in a west Boca Raton community in early January.

Mignano is advising clients to get rid of their impatiens quickly. 

“People are telling us they look fine,” he said. “They’re not fine.”

Vincas, which usually aren’t available until early May, should be ready for planting in the next few weeks, Mignano said.           Ú

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