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Mr. Smarty Plants - Die-off of Texas bluebells

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Wednesday - June 04, 2008

From: Austin, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Seeds and Seeding, Herbs/Forbs
Title: Die-off of Texas bluebells
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:

I live in southeast Travis County east of IH35 in the Blackland Prairie. We have a gorgeous stand of Texas bluebells. Last year, the bluebells would look fine, then they would turn brown and die for no apparent reason. The plant was very hard to pull up, even dead, so the roots were intact. The previous year they were absolutely gorgeous. This year, we have the same problem, but not as many. Is this a blight? How to I handle this?

ANSWER:

This is a very confusing species. It was formely called Lisianthus and still is, in Japan, but in some research we are told that Eustoma exaltatum ssp. russellianum (showy prairie gentian), formerly called E. grandiflorum, is not related to Lisianthus. The two other species of this genus that are native to Texas are Eustoma exaltatum (catchfly prairie gentian) and Eustoma exaltatum ssp. exaltatum (catchfly prairie gentian) but they are all so similar, we'll just stick with the first one as our example.

The Japanese have been breeding these plants (as Lisiathus) and cultivars of them for over 70 years, treat them as annuals, and seed is available commercially there. They have bred them to the point that pink and white have been added to the traditional blue-purple color. For a while, at least, these were available as bedding plants in nurseries. The only time we ever tried them, they croaked as soon as they got in the dirt.

The Bluebells do still grow in the wild in Texas. There is still a stand in Brenham, but nothing like the numbers that were there when the creamery was named after them. There are several reasons for their disappearance. The seed is exceptionally small, looking like pepper, and difficult to germinate. Although the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center always has them in the gardens in season (they were reputed to be one of Mrs. Johnson's favorite flowers), even our Plant Nursery struggles to propagate them. The seeds are not commercially available in the United States. It is considered a biennial or tender perennial, and may not come up and reproduce the second year. Our own website theorizes that one of the reasons the plant is disappearing is that they are so beautiful that people cannot resist picking the flowers; thus, the native population is unable to adequately reseed in their native habitat. One more argument for "look, don't pick" when we're talking about wildflowers.

In terms of cultivation, this plant does better with some shade, especially in our Texas climate, and is found naturally mostly in ditches and slopes where some water is located. The last two years had such differing weather conditions, cool and wet last year and hot and dry this year, almost any plant would be confused. If their roots were standing in too much water last year, they may have drowned out, and this year, there is neither water nor shade to be found. In terms of actual diseases of the plant, we could not find any specific references. Frankly, we suspect all of the reasons above, plus development and mowing, have reduced this plant to rare in the wild. If you have a stand already, we suggest you coddle it, you might even try gathering some seeds, and see if you can revive it.


Eustoma exaltatum ssp. russellianum

Eustoma exaltatum ssp. russellianum

Eustoma exaltatum

Eustoma exaltatum

 

 

 

 

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