Balsam, An Heirloom Annual

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Impatiens balsamina, a flowering annual, has been grown in gardens for many centuries.  It is native to India, China, and Malaysia and reached Europe as early as 1542.  The woodcut directly above is taken from Gerard’s Herball of 1596.  It is a good representation of the seed pods which appear on the plants as the end of their season.  Above the woodcut, I have included a photo of the seed pods from my own garden.  Early gardeners and botanists thought balsam was related to cucumbers because of the similar seed pods.  Gerard lists at least eight names by which the plant was known in his day and that is an indication it probably was widely known and grown.

The first mention of balsam in America is from 1760 by J. Townley in The Boston Evening Post, March 31 of that year.  In the early eighteenth century only single-flowered varieties of balsam were available.  Double forms appeared in 1768 as mentioned by Philip Miller in his Gardener’s Dictionary.  His seed came from the East Indies.  The color range available increased and balsam was a popular garden plant.

I grew an antique Victorian seed mix this season dating to 1863 named “Camellia flowered”.  The flowers are large and mostly double, with a wide color range (the first three photos above show several different colors).  The individual flowers are beautiful and really look like miniature camellias.  This seed strain was very popular in the nineteenth century.

Balsam is a heat-loving annual and enjoys warm summers.  Early gardeners started seeds in hotbeds in frames made with fresh manure.  As the manure aged and composted it heated, thereby providing a warm environment for the young plants.  The plants were then set out into the garden after all danger of frost had passed.  Today, we can start balsam indoors in warm conditions in a greenhouse or under lights at about 77 degrees.  After the seedlings are large enough to transplant, it is best to put them into individual pots as they grow fast.  Balsam enjoys regular water in pots and in the garden, so cannot be considered drought tolerant.  The plants seem to like about as much water and similar temperatures as do tomatoes.

Here in Oregon we had the hottest summer on record and my balsam plants did very well.  I grew them in Montana in the 1980s, but the cool nights, short season and dry air really shortened their bloom season.  Though related to the commonly grown impatiens, balsam grows best in full sun.  I definitely recommend trying balsam in your garden, for they are not often seen today.

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