Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
Balsam, or Touch-Me-Not, is a nearly forgotten annual flower that used to be a cottage garden 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, although related to impatiens, is resistant to this disease.
What is Balsam?
Balsam (Impatiens balsamina) is native to India and Southeast Asia. It was brought to England during Victorian times by the intrepid plant hunters of that era. The 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, ripe 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. I often find myself pulling out seedlings in my garden.
The plants grow to 12” to 18” 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 meaning the offspring will look like the parents which is usually not the case with hybrid plants.
Are Balsam Considered Medicinal Plants?
In traditional Asian medicine, balsam plants are used to treat skin diseases, warts and snake bites. The flowers are used to treat burns.
How to Grow Balsam in Your Garden
Balsam love sun, but in areas with hot summers they prefer a little afternoon shade. They need rich, well-drained soil. You should plan on fertilizing them twice a week with a balanced fertilizer specifically formulated for flowers 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. A thick layer of mulch will keep the soil moist between waterings.
If you are purchasing plants, they should be spaced 12 inches apart.
How to Grow Balsam in Containers
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.
Either use potting soil that has slow release fertilizer in it or if regular potting soil is used, sprinkle some slow release fertilizer on the soil after you have planted your balsam. It’s important to provide enough fertilizer to any plants grown in containers because each time you water, nutrients are leached out of the soil. Those nutrients need to be replaced or your plants will not grow and thrive.
How to Grow Balsam From Seed
Start Your Seed Outdoors – You can direct sow your seeds in your garden after your last frost when the soil has warmed. These are tropical plants. The seeds will not germinate in cold soil. In my NJ zone 6 garden, I wait until the last week in May or first week in June to sow my tropical seeds.
Sprinkle the seeds on the surface of the soil. Do not cover them. They need sunlight to germinate. Germination is quick, in as little as four days. After the seedlings have developed their first true leaves, thin them to 12 inches apart.
Start Your Seed Indoors – Balsam seeds can be started indoors 6 weeks before your last frost. Surface sow the seeds in containers with pre-moistened soil. Do not cover them. They need sunlight to germinate. I always moisten my soil before sowing seeds on the surface because if I wait to water until after I sow them, the water will wash the seeds out of the pots or cause them to float to one side or a corner of the container.
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The seeds should start germinating within four days. Keep the seedlings well-watered. You can plant them outdoors after your last frost when the soil has warmed. Space your seedlings 12 inches apart.
Balsam's colorful flowers light up the garden all summer. It's easy to grow and will reseed itself for years of enjoyment.
© 2015 Caren White
Caren White (author) on February 08, 2017:
So glad my hub brought back such a nice memories for you. Your future grandchildren will love them in all of their wonderful colors! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on June 07, 2016:
Old Roses, this is a wonderful hub. That photo is beautiful. I would love to grow balsam for my patio container garden or just as a potted plant. Thanks for sharing about this wonderful flower.
Susan Deppner from Arkansas USA on June 07, 2016:
Oh, I remember touch-me-not's from when I was a kid but had forgotten all about them. I'll have to look for these and find an area to set aside and let them multiply. This would be so fun for our future grandchildren!
Caren White (author) on August 05, 2015:
Me too! It self-sows so aggressively in my garden that I spend an awful lot of time in the spring "weeding" out all the seedlings.
poetryman6969 on April 16, 2015:
Glad to hear that this flower has useful traits. It has grown like a weed for us.
Bronwen Scott-Branagan from Victoria, Australia on February 02, 2015:
I'll look forward to it! I love my begonias. There's been an annual Begonia Festival in Ballarat ever since I can remember - my parents used to drive up there, taking us to see it. They're so colourful (the flowers, I mean!).
Caren White (author) on February 02, 2015:
bac2basics, unlike penstemon which have flowers on a stalk, balsam flowers grow directly from the stem in between the leaves. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Caren White (author) on February 02, 2015:
Blossom, I usually write about plants that I have grown. I've never grown tuberous begonias, but now I'm curious. I'll have to look into growing them and then write about it. Thanks for the great suggestion and for reading and commenting.
Anne from United Kingdom on February 02, 2015:
What a fantastic hub. I´m a keen gardener, but don´t think I have ever seen these anywhere, they do remind me of Penstemon´s though.
Bronwen Scott-Branagan from Victoria, Australia on February 01, 2015:
Thank you for an interesting and useful hub. I wonder if you might do one on tuberous begonias sometime? Mine are getting pot-bound, but I love them and don't want to kill them by repotting at the wrong time. I'd love to know more about them. I know that they can be propagated by using their leaves, but I've never had any success with that.