Busy Lizzies are BACK: Scientists create a variety of the popular garden plant that is resistant to downy mildew

  • Downy mildew fungus flourishes in damp climates and appears as a grey powder
  • It causes plants to lose their leaves, flowers and their lives within a few days 
  • Dutch firm Syngenta Flowers has bred the new Imara variety of Busy Lizzie 
  • It means strong and resilient in Swahili – a tribute to its East African origin

One of the world’s favourite bedding plant, the Busy Lizzie, is set for a comeback after scientists developed a new, disease-resistant variety.

One garden centre says it will sell six million of the plants after breeders supplied a variety resistant to a fatal airborne disease called downy mildew.

The massed pink, red or white flowers have long been popular in parks and gardens, but took a severe hit after an outbreak in 2011.

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Britain’s favourite bedding plant, the Busy Lizzie, is set for a comeback after scientists developed a new, disease-resistant variety. A garden centre chain says it will sell six million of the plants after breeders supplied a variety resistant to a fatal airborne disease

First discovered in the UK in 2003 and reported sporadically since 2004 in the US, downy mildew remained rare until 2011.

Then an epidemic of devastated Busy Lizzies in gardens and nurseries across Britain after a strain became resistant to the fungicides used to treat it.

The disease also spread to the US, believed to have been imported to both countries from infected cuttings.

Now Dutch firm Syngenta Flowers, experts in plant genetics, has bred the new variety, named Imara – meaning strong and resilient in Swahili – in tribute to the plant’s East African origins.

The massed pink, red or white flowers have long been popular in parks and gardens, but took a severe hit after an outbreak in 2011. The downy mildew fungus, which flourishes in damps climates, first appears as a grey powder under the leaves of infected plants

Joost Kos, the firm’s head of research and development, said it cross-bred two different Busy Lizzies, also known as Patient Lucy, to create a new disease-resistant hybrid that will survive all summer.

He said: ‘We extensively tested “Imara Bizzie Lizzies” indoors and outdoors and have exposed it to the disease to ensure its resiliency.

‘Imara is a new generation of Busy Lizzies that perform much better against the disease while also retaining the qualities that gardeners love such as continuous flowering, bright colours and easy care.’

First discovered in the UK in 2003 and reported sporadically since 2004 in the US, downy mildew remained rare until 2011. Then an epidemic of devastated Busy Lizzies in gardens and nurseries after a strain became resistant to the fungicides used to treat it

The symptoms are irreversible: plants lose leaves, flowers and their lives within a few days of infection. Now Dutch firm Syngenta Flowers has bred the new variety, named Imara – meaning strong and resilient in Swahili – in tribute to the plant’s East Africa origin

The downy mildew fungus, which flourishes in damps climates, first appears as a grey powder under the leaves of infected plants.

The symptoms are irreversible: plants lose leaves, flowers and their lives within a few days of infection.

B&Q, headquartered in Eastleigh, Hampshire, used to sell 20 million of the plants – scientific name Impatiens wallerian – each year and says it has been inundated with customer requests for the bright blooms. 

It and other retailers pulled the plants from shelves and many gardeners have since switched to geraniums, begonias, petunias, marigolds and New Guinea impatiens.

Some outlets have continued to sell disease-affected varieties of Busy Lizzies but buyers have faced a high risk of them dying within weeks.

It is currently unclear whether these plants will be available to buy elsewhere in the world.  

WHAT IS IMPATIENS DOWNY MILDEW AND HOW DOES IT AFFECT BUSY LIZZIE PLANTS?

Colourful Busy Lizzie plants beloved by gardeners are being killed off by a yellow mildew which seems to have developed resistance to fungicides.

First discovered in the UK in 2003 and reported sporadically since 2004 in the US, it remained rare until 2011.

Damp weather is thought help it run riot in gardens. 

It appears as a white power on the underside of leaves which then fall off, leaving just a bare stem.

The mildew is thought to have been brought into the UK from imported cuttings. 

Symptoms on the plants, scientific name Impatiens walleriana, typically start with a few leaves that appear slightly pale or yellow, due to a lack of chlorophyll, becoming completely yellow over time.  

Some varieties will have subtle grey markings on the upper leaf surface and a white, downy-like growth created by airborne spores may be present on the underside of primarily yellow leaves, but can also be found on the underside of green leaves. 

As the disease progresses, premature leaf drop results in bare, leafless stems.  

Young plants, seedling leaves, and immature plant tissues are most susceptible to infection. 

Plants infected at an early stage of development may show marked reductions in growth and leaf expansion. 

B&Q has exclusive world rights to sell the plants with nine sizes on offer from £2.50 ($3.40) in six different colours – coral, rose, white, violet, red and orange star.

B&Q’s plant buyer Tim Clapp said he trialled the new plants in his own garden and has seen them thrive.

He said: ‘Busy Lizzies were the number one favourite plant in the UK.

‘It is clear there is still demand for this beloved plant and we are bringing Busy Lizzies back.

‘This is the most significant plant activity I’ve been involved in during over 20 years in horticulture.’

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