Cottage Garden Favorites: Balsam
Balsam, or Touch-Me-Not, is a nearly forgotten annual flower that used to be a favorite. It is related to the ubiquitous impatiens which have been ravaged by downy mildew, an airborne fungal disease. Downy mildew has become such a problem, that many nurseries no longer sell impatiens. Balsam is resistant to this disease.
Balsam is native to India and southeast Asia. It was brought back to England during Victorian times by the intrepid plant hunters of that era. Their colorful flowers and neat, upright habit made them perfect as a bedding plant.
Their nickname, Touch-Me-Not, refers to their method of spreading their seeds. When touched, the seed pods literally explode spraying seed all over your garden. Thanks to the ease with which the seeds germinate, balsam can become invasive in your garden.
In traditional Asian medicine, balsam plants are used to treat skin diseases, warts and snake bites. The flowers are used to treat burns.
The plants grow to 12- to 18 inches high. The flowers are double, resembling double impatiens and camellias. Flower colors are pink, white, rose, purple and red with many bicolors. Flowering will continue until frost kills the plants. Unlike their hybrid impatiens cousins, balsam will come true from seed.
Balsam love sun, but in areas with hot summers, prefer a little afternoon shade. They need rich, well-drained soil. You should plan on fertilizing them twice a week with a balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10 or you can work a lot of compost into the soil. Because compost is not as nutrient dense as chemical fertilizers, you will need more compost than you would normally use in your flower beds. Balsam don't mind summer heat waves but the plants need to be watered regularly. They will stop flowering if they don't get enough water. They will die if they dry out completely.
Balsam can be grown in containers as long as they have the proper amount of sunlight and fertilizer. Watering is critical when they are grown in containers because containers dry out much more quickly than your garden. You should plan on watering your containerized plants every day.
You can start your balsam seeds indoors 6 weeks before your last frost. Do not cover the seeds with soil. They need light to germinate. Or you can direct sow your seeds in your garden after all danger of frost. The seeds should start germinating within four days. Thin to 12 inches apart. Keep the seedlings well-watered.
Balsam's colorful flowers light up the garden all summer. It's easy to grow, attracts butterflies and will reseed itself for years of enjoyment.
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© 2015 Caren White