Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, I must confess that I have a deep distrust of busy Lizzies. Whenever I have tried to grow them, they have succumbed to disease – they are either covered in mould, or develop some kind of unpleasant rot, their stems turning to mush between my fingers. However, there are two main kinds of busy lizzie available to the UK gardener – the New Guinea variety (Impatiens hawkerii), which I found in a tree pit on the County Roads today, and the more familiar African variety, Impatiens walleriana. The New Guinea species is much more disease-resistant, and has largely replaced I.walleriana following an outbreak of downy mildew that forced garden centres to stop stocking the species a few years ago.
I associate the busy lizzie with the formal bedding schemes employed by town councils from one end of the country to the other. They seem to be largely useless for pollinators, in the UK at least, and I always resented that they take up space where more useful plants could thrive. However, they were cheap, and easy to propagate, and brightly coloured. Every war memorial and park bed seemed to be full of them when I was growing up, and the red ones coupled nicely with blue lobelia and white alyssum to make a Union Jack display. Plus, the white ones glow prettily in a dark corner. Like any plant, they have (or had, following the downy mildew outbreak) their place. It was just their ubiquitousness that I disliked.
If the genus name Impatiens sounds familiar, that’s because the humble busy lizzie is a relative of the rather more daunting Himalayan Balsam. Like its relative, busy lizzie fires its seeds into the stratosphere if the seedhead is touched. Impatiens are closely related to some insectivorous plant families, such as the pitcher plants, and strangely-shaped glands in the sepals (the reproductive parts in the centre of the flower) produce a sticky mucous: these structures may be the precursors of the insect-dissolving parts of their predatory relatives. You can see how this might have developed if you look at some other species of Impatiens, such as Impatiens munronii, shown below – although this is not an insectivorous plant, it is starting to show that pitcher plant shape.
Incidentally, I have been backwards and forwards changing the name of this week’s Wednesday Weed from bizzie lizzie to busy lizzie about half a dozen times so far, and have settled on the spelling of that august organisation, the Royal Horticultural Society, who go with ‘busy lizzie’. I haven’t managed to find out why this plant got the name in the first place, though in good conditions it is a prolific bloomer. I’m guessing that the North American name ‘patient lucy’ is a transliteration of ‘impatiens’. Common names for plants and animals cause the most almighty kerfuffle, for sure, which is why I always include the Latin name somewhere, so we can all agree on what exactly we’re talking about.
Impatiens walleriana comes originally from East Africa, and is named for the Reverend Horace Waller (1833 – 1896), a vigorous abolitionist and anti-slavery campaigner. In 1863, a group of liberated slaves came to the Mission that he was working at in Malawi. The Mission decided to accept the men and boys and reject the women and girls, a decision that appalled the Reverend Horace so much that he resigned and travelled with the women to South Africa because he was afraid that they would be enslaved again if they were not protected. Later, he returned to England and spent the rest of his life campaigning to end slavery.
Incidentally, Impatiens walleriana was previously called Impatiens sultanii, after the Sultan of Zanzibar, so I do wonder about the changing politics that determined the name change. And, in her wonderful book ‘100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names‘, Diana Wells reports that:
‘The Impatiens family is vast and botanically almost incomprehensible. Joseph Hooker, the famous botanist and director of Kew, was trying to sort it out when he died. He called it ‘deceitful above all plants’ and ‘worse than orchids’.
Here in the UK, busy lizzie is largely grown for its prolific flowers, but the root of the plant has several uses in its native East Africa – it is used to strengthen the hair, and is also a favourite food of pigs. It grows along rain-forest gullies, which produce its favourite conditions of shade and moist soil. I can imagine that it would be something of a surprise to see this most suburban of plants flourishing amidst the vines and the butterflies.
I have looked in vain for someone producing busy lizzie jam or beer or (even better) busy lizzie gin. All I have found is a somewhat half-hearted comment that the flowers can be thrown into a salad, or floated on a drink. However, one advantage of busy lizzies is that rabbits are not fond of them, and they are towards the top of the list of rabbit-resistant plants produced by the aforementioned RHS. The plants are also said to be refused by slugs and snails, although in my damp garden I suspect that the slugs and snails would not refuse anything softer than a cactus. Still, let me know your experiences. I have a great fondness for molluscs, but the ones in my garden are pushing me to the brink.
On the other hand, the flowers are said to be popular with parrots, so it seems that at least someone enjoys them as a tasty snack.
In the search for something edifying to conclude today’s piece, I have been somewhat stymied. ‘Busy’ and ‘Lizzie’ are popular rhymes for poets, as in this piece by none other than P.G.Wodehouse in his poem ‘I’m So Busy’. This rather begs to be put to music, and so it was by Jerome Kern for his musical ‘Have a Heart’ in 1917.
I always said
That the man I would wed
Must be one who would work all the time.
One with ambition,
Who’d make it his mission
To win a position sublime.
One whose chief pleasure would be
Making a fortune for me;
One who would toil all the day
Down in the market and say:
I’m so busy,
Don’t know what to do.
Goodbye dear, I’m off to the street.
Can’t stop now,
I’m cornering wheat.
I shall keep on till I’m dizzy,
Till the deal goes through.
Lizzie, I’m so busy,
I’m making a pile for you.
– – – – – – – – – – – – —
Don’t be deceived,
If you’ve ever believed
That my taste for hard labor is small.
Stifle the lurking
Idea that I’m shirking,
I never stop working at all.
I may have loafed in the past,
But I am busy at last,
I’ve found employment and I’m
Working away all the time.
I’m so busy,
Busy loving you.
That’s the job that suits me the best,
Though I never get any rest.
I shall keep on till I’m dizzy
But I shan’t get through.
Lizzie, I’m so busy,
So won’t you get busy too?
– – – – – – – – – – – –
And here’s the story of ‘Busy Lizzie’, a boring machine used to construct the Lee Valley Sewage Tunnel, and named by ten-year-old Ryan Waters in a competition.
But instead, in spite of this Not Being a Cat Blog, I couldn’t resist including a picture of the Friendliest Cat in the World, who burst out of a hedge on the corner of Huntingdon Road for the sole purpose of saying hello. He went missing for a few days last year, and the County Roads were in uproar until he strolled back, wondering what all the fuss was about. He is an ambassador for the community of East Finchley, a place where people grow busy lizzies in the tree pits, and worry about cats. No wonder I love it here.
Photo One (Traditional busy lizzie) CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1027675
Photo Two (Impatiens munronii) by By Davidvraju – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52023362