by Tony Avent
Gesneriads have long been a personal favorite of mine, starting from my days growing and selling African violets (a member of that family) as a young teenager.
Like any addiction, African violets led me too other gesneriads: streptocarpus, which led to columneas, to achimenes, then aeschynanthus, and to a seemingly endless parade of tropical gesneriads.
As I grew older and purchased my first house, my tropical plant passion waned, and I switched gears to hardy perennials. My quest for winter-hardy perennial members of the gesneriad family proved a challenge.
There were actually a few genera of gesneriads that thrived in much colder climates than Raleigh: jankaea, haberlea, and ramonda to mention a few, but my early attempts with these genera failed. They weren’t exactly enamored with our summer heat and humidity.
In the late 1990s, friends at Yucca Do Nursery in Texas shared a few winter-hardy members of the gesneriad genus Sinningia, which I had previously only known from the 1970s era florist gloxinias.
These misnamed “gloxinia” plants, which I’d also killed on several occasions, were actually not gloxinias at all, but the tender Brazilian native Sinningia speciosa. As I continued trying out more South American sinningia species, I was able to find several that actually thrived in our Raleigh garden. It was time to see what other genera would survive.
What about true gloxinias, I wondered…were any of them winter hardy? My first attempt with the genus was with Gloxinia sylvatica, which a friend from Central Florida shared with me. Although it performed amazingly through the summer, it didn’t survive a mild winter.
Then, in 2002, while hiking through the deserts of Northern Argentina’s Salta Province, I stopped for lunch along a seasonal stream. While others in the expedition sat along the stream to eat lunch, I strolled along the adjacent short rock cliffs, food in hand, when I spied a small red blip among the dense foliage.
Pulling back the surrounding plants, I immediately recognized the flower as a gesneriad, thinking initially it might be an achimenes. As it turned out, I’d found Gloxinia nematanthodes – and at a decent elevation (4,000 feet) for this region.
Wedging out a small piece of the corm (a term for the underground tuber stem) from in between the rocks was the first step. Then I had to scrub and inspect it, and ship it back home. Once home and potted, only a couple of weeks went by before new growth emerged. I knew my baby had survived its first test.
Being a horticultural gambler, I planted my new gloxinia in the ground that fall, not wanting to waste time finding out if it would be winter hardy for us.
I carefully watched through the following spring, awaiting its re-emergence. After nearly giving up, in mid-June, it peeked through the mulch. Not only had my baby survived and returned, but it had spread underground to make a shockingly large 18-inch- wide patch. I continued to watch the clump each year as it continued to expand to nearly four feet wide, forming a loose patch of stems.
Finally, in late 2004, I was ready to share, but needed a name for our new introduction. The choice seemed obvious…what else would one name something bright, attractive, and from Argentina, but Evita.
In the decade since her first introduction to the gardening world, Gloxinia ‘Evita’ has since become a favorite around the world, both as a garden perennial, and a summer container filler.
We’ve found Gloxinia ‘Evita’ to grow best in part sun, ideally with some light shade during the hottest part of the day. The one-inch stems are clothed in soft green leaves and adorned with axillary flowers from August to October. Each tubular flower is the most brilliant orange-red we have ever seen on anything other than a custom Ferrari.
I’ve grown few other plants in my life that attracted the attention of Gloxinia ‘Evita’, so if you’re not scared off by bright colors, consider inviting Evita into your garden.