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Gardening From Southern California

by Gerald Burke
by Gerald Burke


Gerald Burke is a freelance travel and horticultural writer. He spent 35 years in the seed business, 30 of them with Burpee, and is a member of the Garden Writers Association and the North American Travel Journalists Association

March 11, 2007

One of the nicest garden flowers we can grow is lisianthus, and how it ever got that name is a little mystery. Botanically it’s Eustoma grandiflorum, and it used to be called prairie gentian, and you might still find it listed that way. Its origins are American, where it grew in its native state in the plains and high plains of America, but that wild form got a great boost when plant breeders started to work on it. Sunset’s Western Garden book says it got the name lisianthus from Japanese plant breeders, who did most of the early work of transforming this plains native to a luscious and beautiful garden flower.

Most reference works, including Sunset, say that lisianthus plants need warm weather to do well, and while somewhat cold tolerant, won’t bloom during our winters. However, a late planting in my garden last fall did well all through the fall and into the winter, even blooming through the disastrous cold spell we had in January. But lisianthus is a better summer flower than winter flower, and it makes one of the longest lasting cut flowers we can grow, easily lasting up to ten days with changes of water.

Lisianthus is hard to start from seed, since the seed is tiny and almost like dust, but you can start from seed if you take some precautions. Plant in a good starting mixture, give the plant some bottom heat if you can, place it where it gets light and don’t cover the seed, but do place a plastic cover over the seed starting medium. Keep the seedbed moist but not soggy.

Good nurseries and garden centers will have lisianthus as started plants in the spring, and that’s the easy way to go. Some mail order catalogs list lisianthus from started plants. You can set started plants in this month and on into early fall, Many will already be blooming in the six packs, and if you buy plants in four inch containers they’ll show good blooms.

There are many new varieties of this old plains flower from which to choose today. One of my favorites is the Double Eagle strain, with double flowers that look much like roses. Other good names to look for are Lizzie, Cinderella, Twinkle, and the Sapphire series. Colors in lisianthus include blue, rose, pink, white, yellow and ivory.

All lisianthus grow best in full sun, with perhaps a little shade in the hot part of the day. They usually are tall flowers, although there are some dwarf varieties, but the best are the tall ones and they get about ten to 20 inches tall. Keep your started lisianthus well watered although they don’t like water standing around the base. Snails sometimes chew on tender new plants, so set out bait. Fertilize with a balanced fertilizer two to four times during the growing season. Toward the end of summer your plants may begin to decline, but often if you cut them back to around two to three inches they’ll re-start from the base and bloom again, even in the shorter days of fall and winter in warm inland areas.

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