All About Petunias

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Posted by @LarryR on
Petunias are one of the most popular bedding plants ever grown. Among the array of colors, shapes, sizes and habits available, there is bound to be something to please every gardener. It wasn't always like this though.

I can remember the pastel shades of pink, lavender and purple on somewhat sprawling plants that graced my mother’s flower beds. Occasionally a white one or even one with the coveted “star” pattern would pop up. And pop up they did, self-sowing liberally, not only in the beds, but even in cracks in the sidewalk.

That’s basically all there was. No Supertunias, no Wave Petunias, no Grandifloras, Hedgifloras, Multifloras, Millifloras nor Floribundas. No yellows, reds, blues, pinks edged in green nor picotees.

 Petunia violacea
 Petunia nyctaginaflora

How it all began

The first inkling of the petunia’s existence was provided by Philibert Commerson, a circumnavigator and naturalist who reported that it grew in Argentina in the early 1790s. It wasn’t until the 1820s that the two parents of the modern petunia first appeared together in Europe, thanks to Scotsman, John Tweedie. In 1825, at the age of 50, Mr. Tweedie left his job as a Landscape Gardener at Eglinton Castle and at the Royal Botanical Garden in Edinburgh, packed up his wife and six children and set sail for Argentina. He soon proved to be a plant explorer of some repute and promptly sent back home two wild petunias, the white Petunia nyctaginaflora (also known as Petunia axillaries) and the light purple Petunia violacea (also known as Petunia integrifolia). These two species are the parent stock of all modern petunias. They caused quite a stir all across Europe and ignited frenzied cross-breeding programs. Those programs yielded new colors, larger flowers, sweetly scented flowers and even double flowers.

Double petunias were known as early as 1900 in the U.S., when seed for them appeared in Vaughan's Seed Catalog. The catalog noted that only 20 to 30 percent of the plants grown from this seed would be double. The rest would be large singles. The first reliably double blossoms were created by hybridizers in Japan. In 1934, the Sakata Seed Corporation offered the first stable double-blooming variety in the rapidly expanding world of petunia culture. During the same period, German seed companies such as Ernst Benary Samenzucht (Benary Seed Growers) began producing petunia seed in a much wider selection of colors than had been available previously.[1]

First petunias in the U.S.

Petunias themselves appeared in the U.S. somewhat earlier than those in the 1900 Vaughan Catalog.  An 1888 Burpee's Catalog, for example, listed a 'Black-throated Superbissima', which had deeply veined, dark crimson-purple petals and a black throat.[2]  Around that same time, Mrs. Elizabeth Crane Gould of Ventura, California, did much of the early hybridization of petunias in the U.S.  She sucessfully developed the first large flowered forms, known as the 'California Giant' strains (Petunia hybrida superbissima).  They were wildly popular, and were still in cultivation as late as 1980. Unfortunately, they are no longer generally available, having been replaced by the modern F1 hybrids. 

F1 hybrid is a term used in genetics and selective breeding. F1 stands for Filial 1, the first. . .generation seeds/plants resulting from a cross mating of distinctly different parental types. The term is sometimes written with a subscript, as F1 hybrid. The offspring of distinctly different parental types produce a new, uniform variety with specific characteristics from either or both parents.


By 1950, rosy pink petunias were all the rage. Seed catalogs and gardening magazines offered petunias with names like ‘Rosy Morn,’ ‘Rosy O Day’ and ‘Rose of Heaven.’ But it was 'Comanche,' the first truly red petunia, bred by PanAmerican Seed in 1953, that took the petunia world by storm. That was followed by 'Summer Sun' in 1977, the first yellow petunia, bred by Claude Hope and introduced by Goldsmith Seeds.

Breeding frenzy

During this time, breeding programs by others continued apace, producing new color shadings, color combinations, blossom sizes and vigor. Hybridizers created entire new classes of petunias (those listed at the beginning of this article). In 1983 Ball Seed Company created the Foribunda and introduced the 'Madness' series. Wave petunias made a splash when 'Purple Wave' was introduced as an AAS® Winner in 1995, inaugurating a new class of spreading petunias. The new variety was bred by Kirin Brewery in Japan--yes, they also make beer!--and was introduced by PanAmerican Seed Company. Another new class, milliflora, was bred by Goldsmith in 1996. This last class is not to be confused with calibrachoa, a petunia relative and a milliflora look-alike developed by a Japanese company called Suntory Ltd.



Wave petunia 'Easy Wave'

How the petunia got its name

It was the French botanist, Antoine Laurent de Jussieu, who established the name “petunia” as the official botanical name for the plant in 1803. The name comes from a South American aboriginal term, “petun,” which means something like “a kind of tobacco that doesn’t make a good smoke." Petunias are closely related to tobacco and belong to the same family as potatoes and tomatoes.[3]

The latest novelty

A most unusual petunia color was recently introduced by Ball FloraPlant: black. Black flowers in the garden are somewhat tricky, as they must be combined with certain other colors in order to show up well. Hanging baskets also offer more opportunities for displaying black flowers to advantage.  I’m trialing this variety in our gardens this year and am not particularly impressed. It’s not a very vigorous plant and the flowers are much smaller than those in the photos shopped around by Ball. ‘Phantom,’ a black petunia with a gold star overlay, was introduced by Ball at the same time. I like this one a bit better because it’s somewhat showier. Black and gold also happen to be the colors of my alma mater.  I have to admit that that fact piqued my interest as well!

Check them out

Petunias are everywhere right now.  Why not check them out as you stroll through public gardens, down city streets, through neighborhoods and through private gardens (with permission, of course).  You can get an idea of how particular varieties and colors actually look in the garden or in a container as opposed to how they look sitting on a shelf at garden centers or in a photo.  If you see a petunia that would fit perfectly in that one spot in the garden you've been musing about, make an effort to find out it's name.  Next year you'll be glad you did.

If you haven't given petunias a try, I encourage you to do so.  There is a treasure trove of colors and shapes to choose from, they're easy to grow and they bloom their little heads off.



More on Elizabeth Crane Gould

In addition to 'California Giant' strains, Mrs. Gould, together with her husband Thomas, developed numerous new strains of petunias, including single Ruffled Giants, the new Double Fringed Perfection, the large flowering Grandiflora 'Emperor' and fringed Grandifloras. The New York firm of Peter Henderson & Co. bought the first available 'Giants of California' seed from the Goulds in 1893 for the handsome price of $40 per ounce. In 1898, Burpee’s ordered three ounces of Goulds' 'Double Fringed Perfection' at an even steeper price of $100/ounce!

The Goulds' trial gardens attracted numerous seedsmen and horticulturists, including W. Atlee Burpee and Luther Burbank.  Several of Mrs. Gould's petunias found their way to the display gardens at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.  They were a popular attraction, and the Bureau of Plant Industry, U.S. Department of Agriculture, congratulated the Goulds on their petunias and their cutting-edge methods of creating new hybrids.[4]


Photo Credits

Wave Petunia 'Easy Wave' is in the public domain.

All other photos are courtesy of and used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.



Comments and Discussion
Thread Title Last Reply Replies
Hats off by valleylynn Dec 23, 2014 5:10 AM 12
Information please by Boopaints Nov 23, 2014 9:36 AM 7
Thanks by Onewish1 Aug 9, 2011 6:29 AM 9

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