Wednesday, July 4, 2007

The Blue Impatiens of Tibet and a hope for its homeland

The fabled blue impatiens, Impatiens namchabarwensis is a special plant from a remote gorge in Tibet. It is the bluest of all impatiens species thus far known, although truth be told sometimes it seems more of a violet blue. It is a good grower and bloomer, although the flowers tend to be rather borne among the leaves rather than above them. Little information seems to be available on how it grows, but I now have enough experience with this plant to make some observations that I hope will be of use to others. My orginal seeds came from Secret Seeds in England, and they sprouted quickly in normal seed compost under lights indoors.
First, in contrast to some descriptions I have seen, this plant is not a perennial in cold winter zones. It is quite frost sensitive, and that includes the roots. The roots give no hint of preparing to survive a winter--no tuberous structures, buds, or other features typically found in temperate perennials. It can be propagated easily by cuttings, and in that sense it can be maintained as a perennial under suitable climate conditions. I kept some rooted cuttings as insurance indoors in my classroom under lights during the winter.
Seedlings flower quickly, within a couple of months, and will bloom all summer and fall until frost excepting periods of very hot weather, above 90 F on a regular basis will cause it to stop flowering. It is, like most impatiens, susceptable to spider mites. Seed is set in abundance, and the plant will self sow easily. A few seeds seem to come up quickly in nearby pots, but more seem to wait until several months elapse--I had several come up in late winter and early spring in pots of other plants that were outside next to the impatiens the previous summer, but were then moved indoors for the winter. Even more seeds come up outside after winter, many have come up in one of my gardens as well as in pots that were outside all winter. Thus this species is able to persist though cold winters as seed.
I predict it will one day naturalize here, as have some other impatiens species from the Himalayas. Considering the report I read a few weeks ago on about a plan China has to build a huge dam which would flood the gorge which is this rare plant's only home, this might be a good thing. In some ways the analogy between this plant's future and that of the culture of its occupied homeland, Tibet, seems almost too obvious. It is said that the following prediction, made in the eight century by the revered Buddhist teacher Padmasambhava, portended the calamity of the Chinese invasion of Tibet and the subsequent spread of the Buddhist ideals of Tibetan culture to the West (USA and maybe Europe) when they would be under seige in their own homeland. "When the iron bird flies in the sky and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered across the earth, and the Buddha dharma will spread to the land of the red-faced man." So too might this beautiful plant also one day need refuge in the West should its own home in Tibet be under the waters of yet another colossal project built by China to extract resources from Tibet. The reader can readily see where my opinion on this political issue lies, but I do feel compelled to say something about what I regard as a flagrant, violent, and brutal imperialist action by a strong nation against a much weaker one. It is an ongoing tragedy, and one that seems to escape the notice of short sighted governments and corporations all too eager to make money, rather than to uphold common ideals of human decency. How many readers know that a few months ago Chinese border police shot a 17 year old Tibetan girl dead in the snow as she tried to flee Tibet with a larger group of unarmed refugees? Those of us who do know about this only know because a Romanian mountaineer nearby happened to catch the act on film. How many times does it happen when no witnesses are around? Sometimes it seems so hopeless, but then I remember how utterly unlikely it seemed twenty years ago that that the tiny, heavily colonized Baltic states would ever regain their lost freedom. But change happpens, and it can happen quite suddenly, so there is reason to be optimistic that justice will one day prevail in Tibet.
One odd thing I found is that when I sowed dried seed I saved a few months earlier on wet paper towels in a plastic container, most of the seeds molded and none sprouted. I wonder if the seed needs to be refrigerated or stored in some kind of medium, or whether it might have done better simply planted in soil. I will test this out at some point later on, but I have so many self sown plants this year in addition to what I overwintered indoors that I haven't got around to it yet. It shouldn't be long before this exquisite impatiens becomes much more readily available in horticulture.

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