Lisianthus: Beautiful and Confusing

I got married in September 1998, and I honestly don’t remember what flowers were in the arrangements on the tables at the reception, but my wife does. They were Eustoma, although my wife calls them “Lisianthus,” which is how florists refer to them.

Carl Linnaeus, aka Carl von Linné

The genera Eustoma and Lisianthus are both in the family Gentianaceae. The wildflower, Eustoma grandiflorum, is called variously the “Texas bluebell”, “tulip gentian”, “prairie gentian”, or “Russell’s prairie gentian”, which is why Carl von Linné invented binomial nomenclature in the 18th century.

In Scotland “bluebells” refer to Campanula rotundifolia (also called the “harebell”) and in England to the wild hyacinth (Endymion nonscriptus). Real gentians are in another genus entirely.

In theory, this sort of plethora of common names should be obviated by the scientific nomenclature. In the case of “lisianthus,” this unfortunately not so. The genus Eustoma appears to have been confused with a more tropical genus Lisianthus at some point in the past. ‘Lisianthus’ has endured as a ‘common name’ when the plants were reassigned to a new genus.

Furthermore, E. grandiflorum is also called E. russellianum in some circles. This in spite of the fact that Lloyd H. Shinners, in a 1957 paper in The Southwestern Naturalist (2:1, pp. 38-43), roundly criticized the original 1903 description of species within Eustoma as “worse than none” and recommended that the trivial name russellianum be supplanted by grandiflorum.

The name ‘eustoma’ , pronounced “U-stow-mah” literally means “good mouth” and more poetically, “a pretty face,” and example of synecdoche. In contrast, ‘lisianthus’, pronounced “LIZ-ee-an-thus”, is derived from the Greek ‘lysis’ or dissolution and ‘anthos’ or flower.

Wild lisianthus

Wild E. grandiflorum is found in the prairies in the region between eastern Colorado and Nebraska, south to Texas and New Mexico. It has large, erect bell-shaped blue flowers and slightly succulent gray-green stems and leaves.

According to the Green Thumb Times, a German firm brought E. grandiflorum into cultivation after 1879, but did not make it widely available. Japanese horticulturalists began working with the plant after 1952 and in 1977 Sakata introduced several new cultivars. It was at this point that ‘lisianthus’ became available as a cut flower in the United States. They apparently spread through the country gradually; my wife does not remember them having got to the florist shop where she worked in Ithaca by 1979.

Green Thumb Times goes on to describe the work of Jay Scott and Brent Harbaugh at Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Florida. They produced heat-tolerant dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties that have come to dominate the market. The number of cultivars continues to expand through both ‘classical’ and molecular breeding methods.

Cultivated lisianthus

The texture of the flowers is silky and they tend to be darker at the center. They are borne singly or in clusters near the upper part of the plant. The A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants, published by the American Horticultural Society, lists several ‘series’ of cultivars, including the available colors and other characteristics, such as stem length, doubling of flowers and period of bloom. They can be grown as container plants in a temperate greenhouse or as annuals out of doors. As cut flowers they are quite long lasting, if regularly re-cut.

The Japanese, who were the first to both cultivate and distribute lisianthus widely, have also incorporated it into their pop culture. Animation that originates in Japan is often referred to as anime. The anime characters that populate video games are ubiquitous pop cultural icons in Japan.

Lisianthus in manga

The Navel company produces a game called “Shuffle!” that includes a character called “Lisianthus”. Interestingly, she is the daughter of a god called “Eustoma,” and Eustoma’s three wives are all named for flowers: Cineraria, Lilac and Iris.

After reading and writing all this I am beginning to remember those flower arrangements at my wedding a lot better.


Lilies: True and Faux

Hemerocallis fulva

In upstate New York there are many lilies in bloom through June and July. As you drive along a county road you are likely to pass rafts of orange daylilies. They are native to western Asia, but they have been widely cultivated in the United States and frequently spread away from where they have been planted into the right-of-way and down along the banks of the roadside ditches. Their six-petal splayed trumpets undulate in the turbulent wake of passing cars, bobbing on their long stiff green stems.

The orange “wild type” daylily is Hemerocallis fulva; there are thousands of cultivars developed from it. There are several yellow species (e.g., H. minor, H. middendorffii) and thousands more cultivars developed from them. Daylilies were introduced to Europe from Asia in the 16th century and to North America in the 17th century. But it was not until the 20th century that serious cultivation and hybridization began. It was chronicled and furthered by A.B. Stout of the New York Botanical Garden. His Daylilies, published in 1934, is the definitive text.

Yellow day lilies

“Hemerocallis” translates from the Greek as “beautiful for a day.” Each bloom opens in the morning and withers at the end of the day. In spite of this trait, daylilies can make good cut flowers because there are several buds on a single stem. The successive opening of the buds will make the relative position of the flowers in an arrangement change slightly through the several days.

Daylilies are in the family Hemerocallidaceae. True lilies are in the genus Lilium in the family Liliaceae. While daylilies have basal leaves erupting from ground level, true lilies have whorls of leaves around a stem. The blooms of true lilies also last much longer than those of daylilies. Easter lilies, so popular as potted plants near the eponymous holiday, are true lilies.

The true lilies include “Asiatic” and “Oriental” groups. Asiatic lilies are extremely hardy, often have up-turned blooms and little or no scent. The University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources notes that only the Asiatic and Oriental “divisions” are grown as cut flowers and that they are raised for this purpose in the Netherlands, New Zealand and the northwest United States. The Asiatic lilies (Division I) can be grown in (USDA growing) zones 3 through 9.

“Oriental” lilies

The Oriental lilies (Division VII) are more difficult to grow and are often quite fragrant. They tend to be showier than the Asiatic group with frilled edges to the petals and striking bands of color. They are also more often outward or downward facing blooms, although upward facing varieties exist. Their stems are not as sturdy as those of Asiatic varieties.

The “Easter lily” or Lilium longiflorum (Division V) is actually native to the Japanese archipelago. Its association with Easter is derived from its ease of forcing; when grown outside in the northern United States it will flower in August. It is fragrant like the Oriental lilies, but is more often sold as a potted plant than a cut flower.

According to Marie Iannotti, most Easter lilies are grown in a region near the border of California and Oregon. The industry took root there after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 cut off the supply from Japan.

Turk’s cap

Turk’s cap or Martagon lilies (Division II) are rarely sold as cut flowers, but are common in gardens. Their blooms are pendant, but the petals are dramatically recurved so that the anthers project prominently beyond the corolla.

Canna lilies, like the daylilies, are not true lilies, but their flowers resemble those of the true lilies. The cannas are subtropical and can’t be grown north of Zone 9. They are often grown for their elaborate, waxy, showy foliage and are related to the gingers and the bananas. Cannas are used more often as potted plants than as cut flowers.

In contrast, the calla (or arum) lilies, are most familiar as cut flowers. Like the cannas, they are not true lilies. Their flowers are technically ‘spathes’ or modified leaves and look like a single petal rolled into an open-ended tube. Like the cannas, calla lilies are subtropical and can’t be grown outside in areas that experience any frost.