New Plants On The Block: Impatiens balansae and Entelea arborescens


Followers of The Frustrated Gardener will already know that I am an inveterate plant collector. If I’ve not seen or heard of a plant and it looks vaguely attractive I’ll want to try growing it. Once I’ve established that I am capable of doing so (normally a quick Internet search will suffice) and I have my hands on it, there is no going back.

The winter provides some relief from this expensive and space-hungry addiction, although of late I have turned my attention to houseplants and am quickly running out of room for those too. But a trip to Cornwall is not complete without a visit to at least one nursery, and since it was also my birthday nothing was going to prevent me dropping into Hardy Exotics en route from Penzance to St Ives. Hardy Exotics is a small nursery brimming with unusual and unexpected plants. It has a special place in my affections since it’s where I began buying tender and subtropical plants some ten or twelve years ago.

Having admitted that I tend to buy now and research later, I am hereby committing to describing this year’s purchases on my blog, both as an aide memoire and a confessional. I might think twice about buying so many plants if I know I then have to write about them … although I feel this is unlikely!

On entering one of Hardy Exotics’ slightly dishevelled and algaefied polytunnels, the first plant that caught my eye bore a handsome rosette of elongate green leaves atop a fleshy stem. Each leaf had a burgundy-red reverse with raised veins. I instantly recognised this as an impatiens, but was not sure which. The label read ‘Impatiens balansae‘. I have found almost nothing written about this species, apart from that it hails from China and Vietnam. Pictures online show shoals of jazzy little flowers resembling goldfish with big red lips. They swim elegantly over and between the foliage, poised on wiry stems. Lack of information generally serves only to pique my interest further. I shall let you know how I get on with the mysterious Impatiens balansae in due course. My first challenge is to get the plant through the remainder of the winter without an attack of red spider-mite, which so often cripples my impatiens when they come indoors.

Image: Wikimedia Commons / Kenraiz

Mindful that The Beau might not appreciate me filling his car with plants (I’m still sussing him out in that respect) I decided that I should only purchase one more on this particular excursion. Hopefully it won’t be long until we’ve graduated to full-boot, roof-down, plants-wedged-between-the-legs adventures. Finding it difficult to choose, I plumped for another unknown, based purely on its resemblance to Sparmannia africana, a large, felty-leaved shrub that I find indispensable inside and out. It turns out that Entelea arborescens is quite closely related to sparmannia, as well as being an only child – it’s the sole species within the genus. The leaves resemble a lime or a mulberry, with their large size and silky lustre suggesting ‘tropical’ and ‘vigorous’. In its native New Zealand, Entelea arborescens is called whau and is prized for its very light wood, rivalling balsa (Ochroma pyramidale). The wood is pithy and unlignified, which means it has very little weight and no distinct growth rings within it. The Maori used whau to make rafts, floats and marker buoys, naming Auckland’s Mount Eden ‘Maungawhau’ meaning ‘Mountain of the whau tree’.

As you will see from the lead image, the flowers bear a close resemblance to those of rubus, superficially at least, and are borne in large clusters during spring and summer. They are, apparently, scented too. After flowering, spiky green fruit capsules appear, eventually turning blackish brown to resemble Mediaeval instruments of torture. Entelea arborescens is not considered hardy in the UK and does not appreciate cold or drought. However it does root very easily from cuttings, so I shall be taking several this summer as an insurance policy. In its natural habitat whau is a pioneer species living around ten years, so it benefits from constant rejuvenation and replacement. Whau might also make a handsome houseplant for a bright room, provided one has the space to let it grow and flower.

No doubt these intriguing plants are the first of many additions to the garden at The Watch House this year. How I will fit them all in I don’t know. Stay tuned to find out! TFG.

Lead image: Whau Flower (Entelea arborescens) – Wikimedia Commons / Avenue