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Fresh in off the prairie, it's lisianthus.

Prairie gentian, also called tulip gentian or Texas bluebell 7Eustoma grandiflorum), broke upon the nursery scene so recently that the supply of plants outstripped available information about how to grow and use them. All the details aren't in yet, but much has been learned about this unusually attactive plant (pictured in color on page 226).

You can buy blooming plants in May or June (March in the desert) in gallon cans for about $5. But if you'd like to grow a quantity to use as bedding plants, try sowing your own now.

Growing lisianthus (most nurserymen use this outdated name) from seed is not as easy as grwoing marigolds. But if you do it right, you may have two dozen or more plants for use in pots, flower beds, or the cutting garden by early to mid-summer.

Annual or perennial? As yet, we don't know enough to make authoritative statements about how long the plants will live. In their native prairies (in Colorado, New Mexico, Texas), they sprout in early autumn, make leaf rosettes that live over winter, then bloom the next summer and die after shedding seed. In Southern California, plants have bloomed for two years. In the San Francisco Bay Area, some plants that bloomed last summer made basal rosettes and seem likely to bloom again.

Sowing. Order seed as soon as possible from one of the sources listed at right. Note that seed is usually sold under the name Lisianthus russellianus.

The seeds aren't easy to sow because they're almost as fine as dust: an ounce contains around 650,000. Some people find it helpful to mix the seed with several times its bulk of sand and sprinkle the mix from a salt shaker. (Be sure that sand and shaker are completely dry.)

Scatter seeds as thinly as you can over a good potting mix in a pot or seed box. Do not cover them with soil; they need light to germinate.

Water thoroughly but gently with a mist nozzle or a misting syringe. The watering will bed the seeds down in contact with the soil. (Another way to water and settle seeds is to set the pot in a shallow pan of water until water rises up through the drainage holes and wets the surface of the planting mix. When your remove the seed pot, the water that drains away will carry the seeds just far enough to give them adequate light while maintaining contact with moist soil.)

To keep the soil moist, cover the pot will a sheet of clear plastic or a piece of glass and store at 65[deg.] to 75[deg.]. You shouldn't have to water again until well after seedlings appear--in two to three weeks.

Remove the plastic when the seeds have germinated. You'll need to keep a close watch--the seedlings are tiny.

As soon as you can handle them, thin the seedlings to about 1-1/2 inches apart. They will grow slowly at first and will not need transplanting again until four true leaves form, about two months from sowing.

Set three or four plants of the same color into a 6-inch pot for a well-filled display, or place one plant in a pot and pinch out tips above the third pair of leaves to force branching. (White and pink forms are identical in size; the purple is a bit shorter and blooms a week earlier.)

In the garden, plants grow best in good, weel-drained soil. Once established, they wiil take moderate drought. Plants in pots should be watered when soil dries out an inch below the surface.

Seed sources. Seeds of Japanese-bred strains are available from The Country Garden, Route 2, box 455A, Crivitz, Wis. 54114 (catalog $2, refundable; list free); Park Seed Co., Highway 254 N., Greenwood, S.C. 29647 (free catalog); and Thompson and Morgan, Box 1308, Jackson, N.J. 08527 (free catalog).

Seeds from wild plants, which many feel will produce hardier, tougher plants, are available from Plants of the Southwest, 1812 Second St., Santa Fe 87501 (catalog $1). The Country Garden (address above) also has seed of Colorado Bluebell, an extra-large, vigorous strain just introduced by a Colorado breeder.
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Mar 1, 1985
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