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.

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 Karl 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”. 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 animé. The animé 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.

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