Scottish botanist Thomas Drummond stumbled across the prairie gentian somewhere in Texas in the 1830s. During that trip, the plant prospector had suffered such diverse calamities as floods, cholera, and the surveying expedition he’d almost joined being slaughtered by Indians.
He apparently liked what he’d seen of the U. S. despite all those drawbacks, because he planned to return home and bring his family to live in Texas. Drummond’s luck shortly would run out, though, and he wouldn’t survive to return to his native land. He perished instead of some unspecified ailment in Cuba.
I like to think, though, that the prairie gentian (Eustoma grandiflorum or Lisianthus russellianus), a wildflower so attractive that it suffers from overharvesting these days, was one of the high points of his journey. Although the russellianus in its name derives from Texas botanist, Levi Russell, Alice Coats' The Plant Hunters credits Drummond with the specie's initial discovery.
Fortunately, he had been sending his finds back to Sir William Hooker in England. Unfortunately, the prairie gentian didn’t become popular as a garden flower until a century and a half later. We might blame that on its being hard to grow in the United Kingdom—or almost anywhere else, for that matter.
In fact, it can be almost as difficult to raise as its perennial cousins, Gentiana species, are. Granted, the “annual” prairie gentian usually does germinate better, but is slow to grow. One started from seed, it generally takes at least five or six months to reach blooming size.
That can be explained by the fact that the plant actually is a biennial or short-lived perennial rather than an annual in the zones where it is hardy, namely 8 through 11. So it thinks it has plenty of time to mature.
In most cases, however, it is treated as an annual, being started very early indoors. Should you want blooms by July, you’ll need to sow the seeds in February. If that seems like too much trouble, keep in mind that prairie gentian today is considered a long-lasting, “high-end” (i.e. expensive!) florists’ flower. So it will pay you—or at least save you money—to grow your own.
One of the few bouquets I still remember from my mother's funeral was comprised of white lilies and eustomas accompanied by blue flowers such as delphiniums and irises. Mom probably wouldn't have liked it, since she preferred brighter, bolder blooms. (Since we couldn't find zinnias in January, we had to opt for gerberas.) But the Delftware colors were very soothing. And smooth eustoma blooms almost have a porcelain-like look themselves.
Under optimum conditions, in full sun and very well-drained fertile soil, the plants can grow to 3 feet tall and 1 foot wide with 2 to 3-inch flowers. However, mine usually don’t surpass a foot or so in height here in Pennsylvania’s heavier soils. Those cupped single or double flowers somewhat resemble tulips—or sometimes roses when double blooms bend to the side—usually in shades of purple, pink, or white. Their foliage also is attractive, being somewhat blue-toned and waxy.
Because eustoma seeds are tiny, you should purchase the pelleted kind if you can, since they will be easier to space, though they generally don’t retain their viability as long as non-encased seeds do. Press them into the surface of damp seed-sowing mix and keep their containers at 70 to 75 degrees until germination, which usually takes about 10 to 15 days.
Since the initial seedlings are so small, they are prone to damping off or getting shaded by larger plants, so keep a watchful eye on them. If possible, move them to a cooler location shortly after they germinate, keeping them at temperatures under 70 degrees while they are young. Too-warm conditions during that period can cause the plants simply to form rosettes of foliage rather than sending up flower stalks.
You can set them out after your last frost, spacing them about 6 to 9 inches apart. They grow well in containers and actually may do better in fluffy potting mix than in the ground if your soil is heavy. In zones where prairie gentian is hardy, cut back the stalks of the faded flowers in early autumn to encourage the plants to make new shoots at their bases for the following year.
I’ve probably had more failures than successes with this flower, but it is worth the effort. As you can see from the photos, two cultivars that succeeded for me were ‘Cinderella Pink’ and ‘Magic Champagne.’ And, despite their plebeian prairie origins, these flowers are, indeed, fit to be the belles of any bouquet!
Photos: The banner photo of Eustoma grandiflorum 'Cinderella Pink' and final photo of Eustoma grandiflorum 'Magic Champagne' are my own. The second photo, of Eustoma grandiflorum growing wild, is by QueenB from the Dave's Garden PlantFiles.