Impatiens vs. Petunia: What’s the Difference?

white speckled purple petunias

Written by Sandy Porter

Updated: November 15, 2022

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Between these two flowers, you’re bound to notice both similarities and differences when you look closely at the blooms. The beautiful petunias and impatiens have similarly shaped blooms, for example, and if you don’t look closely, similar leaves. They’re both often used as potted plants, window box plants, edging flowers, and border plants, but there are some differences you’ll want to note as you get ready to plant that garden.

Let’s check out the differences and similarities below and see if you can decide which one is best for you. Who knows? You might even decide both are.

bright pink impatiens flowers

Impatiens come in many colors and forms.

ClassificationImpatiens; There are more than 1000 varieties of impatiens plantsPetunia; There are 20 species of petunias
DescriptionImpatiens come in a huge range of sizes, colors, and forms. Most are under 2 feet, with flowers in purple, yellow, red, white, pink, orange, or bicolor forms.Petunias come in many colors, sizes, and shapes, including reds and pinks, oranges, peaches, whites, creams, and yellows, with doubled, crisped, waved, or curled edges.
UsesImpatiens are primarily ornamental plants for hanging plants, potted plants, raised beds, and border plants in gardens. They have been used as remedies but are no longer recommended for this purpose.Petunias are primarily ornamental plants, with particular use as hanging plants and potted indoor plants in cooler climates. They area notably low-allergen, as well, and often used by folks with plant allergies.
Origin and growing preferencesImpatiens originated in Africa, Eurasia, and North America. They do best in moist soil that’s well-drained, in partial shade, and with plenty of growing space.Petunias came from South America and North America originally. They love full sun, with well-drained soil and cooler temperatures.
Special features and fun factsImpatiens are nicknamed touch me nots because of their excitable seed pods – and busy lizzies because of their prolific blooming capabilities.Incan and Mayan folks once thought that Petunias were thought to ward off evil spirits and grow in only positive environments.

Key Differences Between Impatiens and Petunia

Though the flowers look alike, petunias and impatiens come from different families and have very different histories.

Impatiens vs. Petunia: Classification

Though the two flowers look similar, they are actually quite different, coming from different regions of the world and different families. Impatiens is the name for the larger genus, with many varieties (over 1000) of plants we commonly refer to as impatiens. They are largely distributed throughout the Northern hemisphere and the tropics both and belong to the family Balsaminaceae. The flowers have many names, including impatiens, jewelweed (exclusively used for Nearctic species), balsam impatiens, busy lizzie, touch-me-nots, patience, and snapweeds. Some of the varieties have specific nicknames in certain parts of the world, including the impatiens walleriana specifically known as busy lizzie and impateins glandulifera commonly referred to as policemen’s helmet in the UK.

Petunia, on the other hand, is a genus of 20 species of flowering plants from South American origin. The name, interestingly, though, comes from a French term (petun) meaning tobacco, which is derived from the Tupi Guarani language of its native land. The plant has many varieties and hybrids seen throughout gardens. The specific varieties will bear the name petunia plus whatever the hybrid’s name is. An example would be petunia atkinsiana. Petunias are part of the larger family the Solanaceae, as a subfamily Peunioideae. The larger family is the nightshade family, meaning petunias are part of the same family as tomatoes, tomatillos, Chinese lantern plants, ground cherries, and eggplants, among others. Most petunia species are actually annual herbs, though they are not edible.

white speckled purple petunias

Speckles on petunias can be common.

Impatiens vs. Petunia: Description

Most impatiens plant species have succulent stems, not woody stems, but they are technically herbaceous annuals and perennials. Depending on the species you plant, you’ll find the plants may be anywhere from 2 inches to 8 feet in height. Obviously, some of these plants are much more “tree” than they are “plant.” Leaves may be thin to thick and wet (succulent), often trapping tiny air bubbles underneath them, giving them a shiny gray sheen. The flowers are irregular in shape and may either be solitary or grow in clusters. The flowers are a funnel shaped bloom. They may be purple, yellow, red, white, pink, orange, or similar shades.

Petunias also come in a huge range of sizes, shapes, colors, and forms. The two main forms for the flowers are multifloras and grandifloras. They may be in single or double forms, with grandifloras being much larger. The flowers are funnel shaped and may have many different edges to them, including crisped, waved, curled, or doubled. The colors are pink, red, lavender, purple, peach, white, cream, orange, yellow, and similar shades.

Bi-color impatiens in red and white

Impatiens come in many shades and forms, including bi-color.

Impatiens vs. Petunia: Uses

Impatiens are best known as potted, hanging, raised bed, and in-ground garden flowers. They make excellent border plants, vertical garden plants (when the right variety is selected), and indoor plants. These plants may also be grown in water, if you’re looking for a different take on the indoor plant life. They have had other uses over the years, though. Impatiens have been in use for centuries as topical treatments for stinging nettle, insect bites, bee stings, and similar skin irritations and conditions. They have been used after poison ivy encounters, as well, and even in prevention of reaction for the poisonous weed. There are conflicting studies over the efficacy of the plant in these uses, however. They are somewhat toxic, however, and should not be ingested. Always consult a medical practitioner before use of plants for topical treatments as well, and instead rely on their expertise to avoid causing health issues for yourself.

Petunias are also particularly well-known for their uses as hanging, potted, raised bed, and in-ground garden flowers. They are favored as indoor plants in colder climates, since they cannot tolerate frost, and planted outdoors in hotter climates where they thrive in plenty of sunlight. They are not particularly noted for medicinal uses but are not particularly noted as toxic. They are specifically recommended for low-allergen gardens, however.

Petunias planted in baskets on salvaged bicycle

Petunias make excellent potted plants, whether you’re going with traditional pots or recycled bike baskets.

Impatiens vs. Petunia: Origins and Growing Preferences

Impatiens are native to Africa, Eurasia, and North America. Two species have also been found in isolated areas of Costa Rica. Primarily in Africa, they are found in Madagascar in the tropical and subptropical mountains, in the Himalayas, the Western Ghats in India, and in southeast Asia. In Europe, they have popped up naturally in various locales. The plants were popular and were brought from America to England, Poland, Sweden, Finland, and northern and central Europe as well, but these were specific cultivars that did not already exist in those regions.

Impatiens do best in moist, humus-rich, well-drained soil. They need to be sheltered from the wind and need plenty of space for growing as they can get quite large. They prefer partial shade and acidic soil.

Bi-color petunias in purple shades

It can be difficult to tell petunias from impatiens (these are petunias).

Petunias, on the other hand, come from the nightshade family and have been in legend and tale of old for centuries in clear, distinctive memory. They originated in South America where European explorers found them and eventually brought them back to Spain in particular, along with other locales as time passed. They were in Tupi-Guarani language areas specifically. Centuries after the initial invaders brought back the plants, botanists were sent to Argentina to find the plant and journal on it. In 1831, Scottish explorer John James Tweedie found petunia species in the Americas as well and brought back specimens to the UK. They were sent to the Glasgow Botanical Gardens. The Petunia tweedia is named after him. Toward the end of the 19th Century, breeders from England, Japan, Germany, and America started cross breeding the plants to create even more varieties of the plants.

Petunias prefer full sun living, with well-drained soil and cool temperatures, making them great for environments like the UK where they thrived after their exportation. They tolerate light frosts, as well, but are best brought in for hard freezes.

Impatiens vs. Petunia: Special Features and Fun Facts

Impatiens are nicknamed the “touch me not” flower/plant because they are very delicate in some cases. When the seeds capsules are mature, if they are touched even slightly, they will burst and send seeds flying everywhere as far as 20 feet from the plant. They plant also has the nickname of busy lizzie because it’s a prolific bloomer. And if you think the name of the whole genus sounds like “impatient” you’d be correct! The name is derived from Lantin and means “impatient” because of the eager way the seed pods explode when touched. Some varieties of impatiens are used for henna dye and hair coloring. And in ancient China, the petals were mixed with other flowers to make nail polish.

Potted red and white impatiens in barrel

Impatiens make for excellent potted plants.

Petunias are also interesting little flowers with some fun facts to explore. They are huge pollinator attractors, despite not having immense aromas we can smell as easily as a rose. They’re typically hybrid annuals that we plant in our gardens today, which is part of why so many will bloom for such a long season. Mayan and Incan peoples used to believe that petunias could ward off evil spirits and only grow well in areas with positive energy.

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About the Author

Sandy Porter is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering house garden plants, mammals, reptiles, and birds. Sandy has been writing professionally since 2017, has a Bachelor’s degree and is currently seeking her Masters. She has had lifelong experience with home gardens, cats, dogs, horses, lizards, frogs, and turtles and has written about these plants and animals professionally since 2017. She spent many years volunteering with horses and looks forward to extending that volunteer work into equine therapy in the near future. Sandy lives in Chicago, where she enjoys spotting wildlife such as foxes, rabbits, owls, hawks, and skunks on her patio and micro-garden.

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