Sp. Pl. 1: 346. 1753.

Common names: Evening primrose
Etymology: Greek oinos, wine, and thera, seeking or catching, alluding to roots of some unknown plants possessing perfume of wine, perhaps misapplied by Linnaeus
Treatment appears in FNA Volume 10.

Herbs, annual, biennial, or perennial, sometimes suffrutescent, caulescent or acaulescent; usually with taproots, sometimes fibrous roots, sometimes with shoots arising from spreading lateral roots, or with rhizomes. Stems erect or ascending, sometimes decumbent, and then sometimes rooting at nodes, epidermis green or whitish and exfoliating. Leaves in basal rosette and cauline, basal leaves present before flowering, often absent later, alternate; stipules absent; sessile or petiolate; blade margins toothed to pinnatifid, often irregularly so, sometimes subentire. Inflorescences: flowers solitary in leaf axils, when terminal, often forming leafy spikes, rarely racemes, erect or nodding. Flowers bisexual, usually actinomorphic, sometimes zygomorphic and petals positioned in upper 1/2 of flower (in sect. Gaura), buds erect or recurved; floral tube deciduous (with sepals, petals, and stamens) after anthesis, usually glabrous, sometimes lanate or densely hispid, with short, interlocking hairs within, with basal nectary; sepals (3 or)4, reflexed individually, in pairs, or as a unit and reflexed to one side at anthesis; petals (3 or)4, usually yellow, purple, or white, rarely pink or red, sometimes base pale green to yellow, usually fading orange, purple, pale yellow, reddish, or whitish; stamens (6 or)8, subequal or in 2 unequal series, anthers versatile, filaments usually without basal scale, sometimes with basal scale (sect. Gaura), 0.3–0.5 mm, scales nearly closing mouth of floral tube, pollen shed singly; ovary (3 or)4-locular or septa incomplete (sect. Gaura) and 1-locular, ovules numerous, or 1–8 (sect. Gaura), style glabrous or pubescent, stigma usually deeply divided into (3 or)4 linear lobes, sometimes peltate, discoid to nearly quadrangular or obscurely and shallowly 4-lobed (sect. Calylophus), entire surface of lobes receptive, surface probably wet and non-papillate, subtended by ± conspicuous peltate indusium in early development, persisting to anthesis, often obscured by developing stigma. Fruit a capsule, straight or curved, lanceoloid or ovoid, ellipsoid to cylindrical, rhombic-obovoid, or globose, sometimes clavate or ellipsoid with proximal part sterile and cylindrical, tapering to a pedicel-like base (stipe), terete or (3 or)4-angled or -winged, usually loculicidally dehiscent, sometimes tardily so, sometimes an indehiscent, nutlike capsule with hard, woody walls (sects. Gaura, Gauropsis), usually (3 or)4-locular, sometimes septa incomplete and fragile and then ovary 1-locular (sect. Gaura); usually sessile, sometimes pedicellate. Seeds usually numerous (1–160+), in 1 or 2(–4) rows or clustered in each locule, or sometimes reduced to 1–8 (sect. Gaura), surface papillose, beaded, rugose, furrowed, reticulate, or smooth. x = 7.


North America, Mexico, West Indies, Bermuda, Central America, South America, introduced in temperate to subtropical areas nearly worldwide.


Species ca. 150 (93 in the flora).

Oenothera is distributed widely in temperate to subtropical areas of North America and South America, usually in open, often disturbed habitats, from sea level to nearly 5000 m elevation; several species are widely naturalized worldwide. The center of diversity for Oenothera is in southwestern North America, but farther east than other genera of the Onagreae. Oenothera is delimited here more broadly than in the past, when as many as 15 genera were recognized, which broadly correspond to sections recognized here, and as few as three (P. A. Munz 1965) or four genera (P. H. Raven 1964). Oenothera, as it has been delimited in recent decades, lacked a clear generic synapomorphy, but was considered distinctive by virtue of having a 4-lobed stigma receptive over its entire surface; however, Gaura, Stenosiphon (short lobes with a distinctive disk at the base), and to some degree Calylophus (peltate, discoid to quadrangular, sometimes shallowly 4-lobed) each have similar but slightly different variations on the basic lobed stigma. Calylophus and Gaura have been considered to be closely related and distinct from Oenothera and Stenosiphon by having anthers with both tapetal and parenchymatous septa (Raven). Molecular studies with broad sampling in Onagreae (R. A. Levin et al. 2004) showed high support for a monophyletic Oenothera only when Calylophus, Gaura, and Stenosiphon are included within it. Subsequently, it was recognized that while stigma morphology varies among these four groups from deeply divided into long or short linear lobes to peltate, discoid, nearly square or obscurely and shallowly 4-lobed, the stigmas of all four groups are subtended by a more or less conspicuous peltate indusium (W. L. Wagner et al. 2007). This structure, long known in Gaura and Stenosiphon because it is conspicuous throughout anthesis, had been overlooked in Oenothera, apparently because it usually is evident only in early development; in some species it becomes less conspicuous and even hidden by the stigma. Molecular analyses (Levin et al.; G. D. Hoggard et al. 2004) and the consistent synapomorphy of the indusiate style lead to a broadened concept of Oenothera (Wagner et al.) by including in it the previously separate genera Gaura and Stenosiphon for the first time. Calylophus is also included in the expanded Oenothera as was done by Munz and others, but not by Raven and H. F. Towner (1977).

Permanent translocation heterozygosity (PTH) appears to have been a major element in the evolution of species of Oenothera (R. E. Cleland 1972; P. H. Raven 1979; K. E. Holsinger and N. C. Ellstrand 1984; C. Harte 1994; W. Dietrich et al. 1997; M. T. Johnson et al. 2009, 2011), and otherwise occurs in the Onagraceae only in Gayophytum heterozygum. Permanent translocation heterozygosity has been recorded in only 57 species in seven plant families (for example, Holsinger and Ellstrand), including Onagraceae (47 spp.), Campanulaceae (2 spp.), Commelinaceae (2 spp.), Clusiaceae (2 spp.), Iridaceae (3 spp.), Paeoniaceae (2 spp.), and Papaveraceae (1 sp.). The taxonomic distribution of PTH in the Onagraceae now appears to be even more concentrated in Oenothera than when Raven reviewed PTH in the family; in his treatment, PTH occurred in Calylophus (1 sp.), Gaura (2 spp.), Gayophytum (1 sp.), and Oenothera (43 spp., including 37 in sect. Oenothera, and the other six in sections now included in one of the two primary Oenothera lineages [including Hartmannia (1 sp.), Kneiffia (1 sp.), Lavauxia (1 sp.), Leucocoryne (2 spp.), and Xanthocoryne (1 sp.)]. It appears that the specific chromosomal structure in Oenothera—metacentric chromosomes with pycnotic, condensed proximal regions—enables reciprocal translocations, resulting in the regular occurrence of rings of chromosomes at meiosis and ultimately the specialized system of PTH, in which all seven pairs of chromosomes exchange arms and segregate as a unit (M. Kurabayashi et al. 1962; Cleland; Raven). The best known species possessing this system are the members of subsect. Oenothera, in which the structure and mechanisms of PTH were elucidated (Cleland; Harte; Dietrich et al.). In addition to the translocations, the system requires balanced lethals, which prevent the formation of the homozygous combinations (PTH species have ca. 50% infertile pollen (sterile pollen smaller than fertile under minimal magnification, but fertility can range from 30% to 85%), facultative autogamy, and alternate disjunction of the chromosomes during meiosis. In PTH species, a ring of 14 chromosomes or occasionally 12 + 1 pair chromosomes is formed at meiotic metaphase. A PTH species in the sense employed here is an aggregation of true-breeding populations having similar morphological and genetic attributes.

P. H. Raven (1979) pointed out that most PTH species are annuals or biennials; only about 10% of the known PTH species in Onagraceae are perennial. Most of the species of Oenothera that have become naturalized outside their natural range are PTH, and all of the species that have achieved a wide naturalized distribution are PTH. Most of the PTH species in Oenothera seem to have originated within the limits of a taxonomic species (Raven). In a few instances, notably O. triangulata (Raven and D. P. Gregory 1972[1973]), four species of subsect. Oenothera (Raven et al. 1979; W. Dietrich et al. 1997), and several species of subsect. Munzia (Dietrich), the PTH taxa seem to have originated after hybridization between species. In all instances, PTH seems to have arisen as a way to limit recombination (Raven). In Oenothera, floating translocations are common (that is, a ring of four or a ring of six) and 46 species (30% of the species in the genus) are PTH with 1II + a ring of 12 chromosomes or a ring of 14.

Evening primrose oil (EPO), found mainly in seeds of sect. Oenothera, contains a rare omega-6 essential fatty acid, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), which is considered to be the active therapeutic ingredient with value as a pharmaceutical and nutritional supplement. EPO is used for the treatment of a variety of disorders, particularly those affected by metabolic products of essential fatty acids; convincing evidence for its efficacy in treating most disorders is still lacking. The most promising uses are in the treatment of eczema and other skin irritations, multiple sclerosis, and diabetes.

Many species of Oenothera are cultivated and are among the most popular ornamentals in the family. The species most commonly cultivated and used for creating horticultural cultivars are O. capillifolia (sect. Calylophus), O. lindheimeri (sect. Gaura), O. speciosa (sect. Hartmannia), O. fruticosa (sect. Kneiffia), O. acaulis and O. flava (sect. Lavauxia), O. macrocarpa (sect. Megapterium), O. glazioviana (sect. Oenothera), and O. cespitosa (sect. Pachylophus).

Reproductive features include: self-incompatible or self-compatible; flowers vespertine or diurnal, usually lasting less than one day, but sometimes lasting two to several days (sects. Kneiffia, Megapterium); outcrossing species with diurnal flowers pollinated by bees [especially Halictidae (halictids), Anthophoridae (anthophorids), and Bombus], small moths, butterflies, syrphid flies, or hummingbirds (two spp.), and outcrossing species with vespertine flowers pollinated by hawkmoths or, sometimes, other small moths, rarely wasps or antlions (in O. cinerea of sect. Gaura), or autogamous, occasionally cleistogamous.

Seed numbers are not known precisely for all sections of Oenothera; here, seeds numerous indicates usually 30+ per capsule; for some taxa, seed number ranges from one to eight per capsule; when eight or fewer, the actual range is usually given.

Several sections (for example, Gaura, Hartmannia, Kneiffia, Leucocoryne, Peniophyllum) of Oenothera have capsules much wider in the distal, fertile part than in the proximal, sterile part, which tapers to a pedicel-like stipe. In other sections (for example, Megapterium, Pachylophus) the proximal part of the capsule is abruptly constricted to what has traditionally been considered to represent a pedicel. That terminology has been continued here, but anatomically it is not clear whether the stalk in these sections is developmentally the same as those with a stipe. The origin of pedicel-like structures should be studied in depth across the family.

Selected References



1 Stigmas peltate, discoid to quadrangular or obscurely and shallowly 4-lobed. > 2
1 Stigmas deeply divided into (3 or) 4 linear lobes. > 3
2 Seeds in 2 rows per locule; capsules cylindrical. Oenothera sect. Calylophus
2 Seeds clustered in each locule; capsules ellipsoid-rhombic to subglobose. Oenothera sect. Peniophyllum
3 Capsules cylindrical to lanceoloid or ovoid, without ridges or wings, sometimes angled. > 4
3 Capsules usually ellipsoid to oblong, ovoid, or obovoid, sometimes lanceoloid, cylindrical, pyramidal, fusiform, or globose, angled or winged, or valve margins with ridges or tubercles. > 8
4 Petals white. > 5
4 Petals yellow. > 6
5 Seeds in 2 rows per locule, ellipsoid to subglobose, surface regularly pitted, pits in longitudinal lines; capsules straight or sometimes curved upward, dehiscent 1/2 their length. Oenothera sect. Kleinia
5 Seeds in 1 row per locule, obovoid, surface minutely alveolate but appearing smooth; capsules straight, curved upward, or contorted, dehiscent 1/2 to nearly throughout their length. Oenothera sect. Anogra
6 Seeds prismatic and angled, usually ellipsoid to subglobose, rarely obovoid and obtusely angled, surfaces reticulate and regularly or irregularly pitted. Oenothera sect. Oenothera
6 Seeds obovoid to oblanceoloid, surfaces coarsely rugose, also with turgid and collapsed papillae. > 7
7 Herbs winter-annuals; capsules not twisted, surfaces not wrinkled; seeds with conspicuous raphial groove and a pore at distal end of raphial face. Oenothera sect. Eremia
7 Herbs perennials; capsules twisted, surfaces conspicuously wrinkled; seeds lacking a raphial groove and pore. Oenothera sect. Contortae
8 Petals white, pink, or rose purple, rarely streaked or flecked with red. > 9
8 Petals yellow. > 13
9 Capsules cylindrical to obtusely angled, with tubercles or an undulate ridge along valve margins. Oenothera sect. Pachylophus
9 Capsules angled or winged, without tubercles or ridge along valve margins. > 10
10 Capsules indehiscent; seeds in 2–4 rows in locules or reduced to 1–8. > 11
10 Capsules dehiscent, at least in distal portion; seeds clustered in each locule. > 12
11 Petals usually pink, rarely white, streaked or flecked with red; flowers actinomorphic; seeds in 2–4 rows per locule. Oenothera sect. Gauropsis
11 Petals white, not streaked or flecked; flowers usually zygomorphic; seeds not in rows, reduced to 1–8. Oenothera sect. Gaura
12 Petals pink or rose purple, rarely white (O. speciosa); capsules usually angled, rarely with a narrow wing to 0.5 mm wide, apex attenuate to a beak. Oenothera sect. Hartmannia
12 Petals white; capsules with wings 0.5–4 mm wide, apex rounded, obtuse or bluntly acuminate. Oenothera sect. Leucocoryne
13 Seeds ovoid, 0.7–1 mm, clustered in each locule. Oenothera sect. Kneiffia
13 Seeds obovoid, subcuboid, cuneiform, or rhombic, (1.8–)2–8 mm, in 1 or 2 rows per locule. > 14
14 Capsules with wings 10–32 mm wide throughout capsule length, or capsule walls with corky thickening and wings not developed (sometimes in O. brachycarpa), then capsule appearing only 4-angled; seeds usually with erose wing distally, surfaces coarsely rugose. Oenothera sect. Megapterium
14 Capsules angled and valves with a prominent median ridge or, if winged, then wing oblong to triangular, confined to distal 1/2–2/3, (1–)3–5(–10) mm wide; seeds sometimes with a small wing at distal end and with a ridge or small wing along one adaxial margin, surfaces beaded. > 15
15 Petals obovate or obcordate; capsules winged, wings oblong to triangular, confined to distal 1/2–2/3 of capsule. Oenothera sect. Lavauxia
15 Petals usually elliptic, sometimes oblanceolate; capsules angled and valves with a prominent, broad median ridge. Oenothera sect. Paradoxus
... more about "Oenothera"
Warren L. Wagner +
Linnaeus +
Evening primrose +
North America +, Mexico +, West Indies +, Bermuda +, Central America +, South America +  and introduced in temperate to subtropical areas nearly worldwide. +
Greek oinos, wine, and thera, seeking or catching, alluding to roots of some unknown plants possessing perfume of wine, perhaps misapplied by Linnaeus +
Oenothera +
Onagraceae tribe Onagreae +