To see lisianthus is to be struck by its beauty. The 4-inch bell-shaped blooms clustered in profusion on each stem impart a classic elegance that overshadows most other flowers. And just to make certain it covers all the bases, lisianthus shows off just as well in a pot and as a cut flower as it does planted in the ground.
In the beginning, the cultivated form was classified as Lisianthus russellianus. The designation was then changed to Eustoma grandiflorum (eustomos meaning of beautiful countenance). Traditions die hard, apparently, for the flowers are still commonly called lisianthus.
It wasn't until a dozen or more years ago that breeders started working on the plant in earnest. Now lisianthus is making headlines -- at least in professional journals. Lisianthus Blue Lisa, a new variety especially suited to pot culture, was recently named a FloraStar winner.
FloraStar, by its own definition, is "the all-industry trialing program established to recognize and promote outstanding new varieties of potted plants and to foster industry marketing efforts." Awards are made twice a year in fall and spring. In rating Blue Lisa, the judges called it "the best Eustoma we have seen to this point."
Blue Lisa, says Theodore R. Marston, president of FloraStar, improves on its predecessors in its dwarfer habit of 10 to 12 inches tall and 8 inches in spread. Branching at the base naturally, it needs no pinching or chemical regulators to keep it compact. It's earlier to flower, too, requiring only 17 weeks from seed as opposed to the usual five months.
For cut-flower use, lisianthus long ago began attracting the attention of Japanese growers, who introduced it to their country in the early 19th century. Demand for lisianthus today is strong in Japan and in Europe. But in the United States, it never quite caught on in that form. The reason, some say, is that growers find plants too hard to produce. Seeds are very small and therefore difficult to handle, while development of plants is slow, especially in the early stages.
Be that as it may, the volunteer home gardeners who plant and maintain the All-America display gardens at Cylburn Arboretum and who test and evaluate annuals there have mastered the fine points of propagating lisianthus. Every year for the past half-dozen or so they have been featuring various varieties of it in the collections. Visitors invited to vote for the flowers they like best have consistently chosen lisianthus as one of their favorites.
(Shirley Byers, who directs seeding at Cylburn, says the garden's two beds of lisianthus says should be in bloom until frost. One bed contains the Heidi series, in shades of blue, white with a pink rim, and all-white; the other holds Echo Misty Blue and Mermaid Blue.)
It's ironic that Japan should have led the way in the development of lisianthus, for the original species of lisianthus is a native American wildflower. Commonly known as Prairie Gentian, it's a familiar sight on the plains of Texas as well as in other parts of the southwestern United States east to Florida and south to Mexico. It also grows in the West Indies and the northern parts of South America. Lisianthus was thus picked wild from our own back yard, taken to Japan for a make-over and sent back to us as a well-bred damsel.
But the field plants of yesterday were pollinated randomly by bees; hybrids are grown in controlled environments and pollinated by hand.
The creation of a good hybrid had for some time been on the minds of some of the world's foremost plantsmen. Hybrids, among other things, bear flowers that characteristically are more uniform, their stems are stronger, and plants are often earlier to bloom. Particularly desirable with lisianthus, which can grow 2 to 3 feet tall, was a hybrid of dwarfer, more compact habit.
Leading the competition at first were Sakata Seeds of Japan, and Charlie Weddle, originator of the first hybrid petunia, according to Dr. Kenneth Goldsberry, a professor of horticulture at Colorado State University at Fort Collins, who wrote a paper on the subject.
Sakata's plants produced stems 18 inches tall, 17 to a plant, and each bearing six flowers with a lifespan of eight to 10 days. Mr. Weddle topped the numbers with stems 24 inches tall, 29 to a plant and eight flowers to a stem. Mr. Weddle's flowers, moreover, lasted 14 to 18 days.
But somehow, Sakata finished first. Its Yodel series, in colors of blue, pink, white and deep rose, was introduced 1981 as the first hybrid lisianthus. (Sakata is also the developer of the Heidi, Echo and Mermaid.) With stems 2 to 2 1/2 feet high, the Yodels were suited to the cut flower market. Although they would have made fine landscape plants too, no commercial growers were producing them for that purpose. Yodels grown from seed, however, were displayed at Cylburn and quickly became the public's favorites.
Mr. Weddle, who died a few years ago, had been associated for a number of years starting in the mid-'40s with Claude Hope, father of the first hybrid impatiens. Mr. Weddle and Mr. Hope founded the Pan American Seed Co., a wholesale firm, in 1946. Mr. Hope, a native Texan, has also been pursuing a lisianthus hybrid. For a number of years he has been working on the project at an establishment he set up at Linda Vista in Costa Rica. Mr. Hope produced Blue Lisa in 1988.