So when our friend arrived the other night, I was prepared: I had many new plants to show him that I considered indicative of what was available at the sale, but nowhere else; several examples of blooming gesneriads in the landscape which are totally hardy here; and, best of all, a brand new, very flamboyant (they had a more tasteful version, but I figured I’d let my gesneriad freak flag fly all the way) new t-shirt. It’s emblazoned with a colorful botanical illustration of Episcia reptans, about a thousand times normal size, and a banner headline that reads “The Gesneriad Society.” Sadly, my friend (as well as my long-suffering partner) remained unimpressed. Pressing on, I regaled them with the virtues of gesneriads as hardy landscape plants here, mentioning that I've been trialing some plants for hardiness which had heretofore been considered only suitable for greenhouse cultivation. I showed him one of my tiniest Sinningias (‘Rio das Pedras’), full grown and comfortable in a pot the size of a thimble; his comment was “I bet people walk all over those in South America all the time and never notice.” Finally, just to humor me (he does this, which is one reason I like him so much), he did ask an extremely intelligent question: “So just what makes a plant a Gesneriad?”.
If he had asked the same question about a Begonia, I’d have been ready. Ditto for lots of other botanical families. However, the only response I could make to this question was to stammer and stare; I was totally stumped. It’s just an incredibly diverse tribe, and there are genera (Rehmannia, for example) about which even botanists can’t seem to agree in terms of whether they’re Gesneriads or members of the Scrophulariaceae. On top of this, the scientific names change back and forth on what seems like a weekly basis. Since I was finally speechless on the subject, I poured him another vodka-watermelon smoothie and let my friend take over the conversation, which is usually the best plan when he’s around, anyway. He’s darned entertaining, even if he does do a pretty good impression of a botanical cretin.
After researching his question, I feel somewhat vindicated. Every definition of the family Gesneriaceae that I can find is riddled with inconsistencies – the words “most” and “many” are commonly used. There seem to be very few uniquely defining factors, as in this Wikipedia article:
"Most species are perennial herbs or subshrubs but a few are woody shrubs or small trees. The phyllotaxy is usually opposite and decussate, but leaves have a spiral or alternate arrangement in some groups. As with other members of the Lamiales the flowers have a (usually) zygomorphic corolla whose petals are fused into a tube and there is no one character that separates a gesneriad from any other member of Lamiales. Gesneriads differ from related families of the Lamiales in having an unusual inflorescence structure, the "pair-flowered cyme", but some gesneriads lack this characteristic, and some other Lamiales (Calceolariaceae and some Scrophulariaceae) share it. The ovary can be superior, half-inferior or fully inferior, and the fruit a dry or fleshy capsule or a berry. The seeds are always small and numerous. Gesneriaceae have traditionally been separated from Scrophulariaceae by having a unilocular rather than bilocular ovary, with parietal rather than axile placentation."
Another view of the windowboxes and surrounding bed, showing more gesneriads on the lower level - Achimenes 'Purple King' and Gloxinia nematanthodes 'Evita'. These two are now ubiquitous in the garden, apparently hardy even in pots and containers left outside over the winter. Can't help but notice the "color echo" among the Begonias, the Gloxinia, and and the Arisaema seedpod in the forground.
One more Chirita for the road...