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The Texas Bluebell, the Eustoma, or a tale of Latin Names

OK, just to get this out of the way, a little Latin lesson. Some days I feel like a gardener, and others a scientist. My husband calls it my right-brain/left-brain garden. When researching wildflowers, the first problem one gets into is in the matter of names. Flowers have different common names all over the world, and the more this world piles its information online, the more confusing it can get.

Latin names help us get this confusion out of the way, but I admit they are rather boring to most people, sometimes just down right goofy. The gardening world now persists in calling Ranunculus “ranunculus” rather than its much more fitting common name “Persian Buttercup”. But then, people might get Buttercup confused with Narcissus, which is what we called “Buttercups” as children where I grew up, and what others in the South call Jonquils or you call Daffodils. Ahh, never mind.

Not only can they be goofy, but Latin names can also be confusing as botanists have often moved or changed Latin names to refine plant categorization.

Once upon a time there was a beautiful wildflower, native to the American prairie, from Nebraska to Wyoming, Texas to the top of Mexico. A tall, showy wildflower with radiant lilac petals and saffron-colored center, often called the lovely name Prairie Gentian. Although we most commonly associate Texas’ wildflowers with bluebonnets, the Prairie Gentian (or as Texans know it, the Texas Bluebell) is probably the most glamorous of all our wildflowers. And sadly, it has been harvested to near extinction.

Here is the confusing part. The genus Eustoma is entirely native to the U.S., and only has three species:

Eustoma exaltatum

Eustoma exaltatum ssp. russellianum

Eustoma exaltatum ssp. exaltatum

To be exact, Eustoma has one species, with two variants, or subspecies. In the Latin naming, Eustoma refers to the Genus, and exaltatum refers to the species. The “ssp” part means subspecies. Subspecies are often barely distinguishable from one another, and may simply be a matter of a plant’s particular adjustments to its environment over time. The further a plant gets away from its parent species geographically, it begins to adapt.

Eustoma exaltatum, in this case, is the parent species, a flower commonly known by by varied names: Blue marsh lily, Bluebell gentian, Catchfly prairie gentian, Small bluebell, and Western blue gentian. This species of flower is native to the southward coastline from Florida through Texas to California and up the west coast, and occasionally into the northern prairie.

A child of this flower went wild and free down the prairie, the Prairie Gentian, or the flower we know as Texas Bluebell, Eustoma exaltatum ssp. russellianum. And like many other plants discovered in the frontier prairies, breeders in Europe and Asia found them of great interest. Japanese breeders have hybridized the Prairie Gentian into many different colors and double forms for the florist industry, and while they retain a resemblance to the original flower, are much more stout and formal. These are known by various hybrid names like “Echo” or “Double Echo” or “Cinderella”. They are also frequently called Lisanthius, an older Latin name for Eustoma.

Both Lisianthius russellianus and the still widely used Eustoma grandiflorum are former Latin names for Eustoma exaltatum ssp. russellianum, which is sometimes shortened to Eustoma russellianum. So, all four are the same species, and you would definitely come across them all if you are searching for seeds or plants. In any case, the original wildflower is still a sight to behold and puts even the hybrids to shame. A tall large-flowered beauty, its Latin name is telling, meaning “Good Mouth” (Eustoma) and “Very Tall” (Exaltatum). I also like to think it means exalt, as in celebrate.

And just to avoid further confusion, there is a genus “Gentian”, which has its own species. It is related to the Eustoma genus, but both have common names of Gentian, and just like “Daisy”, we can get stuck back at square one. But if you are going out to buy something, especially seeds, pay attention to the species name. There are a myriad of wonderful and sometimes radical differences between species and even more so in their man-made hybrids, which are often interbreeds between species.

Now that I’ve gotten this out of the way, I can get down to the business of writing more poetically about Texas Bluebell, and also wonder why Latin names are italicized? (I’m a former editor, I’m curious about these things.)

Texas Bluebell at Central Texas Plants

  1. Nice write-up on the nomenclatural history.

    July 18, 2011
    • Amy #

      Thanks! I really enjoy studying nomenclature and etymology. 😉

      August 10, 2011

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