Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Eustoma grandiflorum

Forty years ago I was in the Army stationed in central Texas. I was there for a full year, and thus had the chance to see the local flora (and some of the fauna, too) through an entire yearly cycle. For someone who grew up east of the Mississippi, this first glimpse of life west of the river was a real eye-opener. I spent every spare minute out in the field collecting and soaking it all in.
One day in the barracks I noticed that I was not the only one who collected the local vegetation. There was briefly a Japanese man in our unit, and one day I noticed that he was carefully pasting a sample of the local vegetation into what appeared to be a letter. I mistakenly jumped to the conclusion that his interests were botanical; as it turned out, he was finishing up a letter to someone back home (he was very reticent about it all) and all I could gather was that the blade of grass and blossom I noticed had a purely sentimental or poetic significance for him.
Those months in Texas certainly made a good impression on me. There were so many exciting discoveries: my life back then reminds me of a certain risible boy’s book published in the early twentieth century, a book where on every page a rattlesnake, tarantula or Gila monster wanders into the story to liven things up. In the book it was ridiculous, but in real life it was just that, real. Gila monsters don’t live in Texas, and I never saw a wild rattlesnake, but there were the occasional Texas copperheads (very beautiful, much more so than the local Maryland ones), plenty of tarantulas if you knew where to look (I quickly figured that out), and scorpions.
The flora was mostly new to me. I’ll never forget the thrill of seeing Eustoma grandiflorum in full bloom in a dry summer field. The plants were about three feet high and full of dark purple bloom. I didn’t know what it was when I first found it, but it didn’t take long to find out.
Eustoma is nothing new in cultivation – seed lists from the early part of the twentieth century sometimes list them. But the modern cultivated strains are the result of more modern effort to commercialize this plant. I have no idea why they are marketed under the old name Lisianthus. And, I believe, these modern strains were first developed in Japan.
And that makes me wonder if that Japanese man I saw putting local flora into his letters had anything to do with it: wouldn’t it be an amazing coincidence if he did!

The plants you see in the image above were a Mothers' Day gift from my sister and brother in law to Mom.
If you are new to botanical nomenclature but trying to learn, you are perhaps puzzled why the genus name ends in the letter a (suggesting that it is feminine) yet the species name ends in -um suggesting it is neuter. The Greek word stoma (which usually means mouth) is neuter, so the adjective modifying it must be neuter also. If a botanical family should ever be established based on this name, it would be spelled Eustomataceae, not Eustomaceae because the oblique stem of stoma is stomat-.
When the author of a botanical name does not explicitly state the meaning of the name, there can be no certainty about what it means. Various publications have given "meanings" for the word Eustoma, most of them focusing on the usual meaning of the Greek word stoma (mouth). These meanings tend to be infelicitous (I'm reminded of the German Maultasch) . But stoma can also mean the entire face, and with that in mind I prefer to think that Eustoma means "pretty face".

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