547 Petunia x hybridaCommon Names: petunias Family: Solanaceae (nightshade Family)
Petunias are herbaceous perennials, usually grown as annuals, that have become one of our most popular garden plants. The petunias that we grow today comprise a large family of hybrids derived from many species including Petunia axillaris, P. violacea and P. inflata. Petunias are classified into two categories; grandiflora (large-flowered) and mulitflora (many-flowered). The grandiflora petunias have trailing stems and tend to spread. They also have the largest flowers that grow to 5 in (13 cm) in diameter. The multiflora petunias are bushier, more compact and produce smaller flowers that are about 2-3 in (5-7.6 cm) in diameter) but make up in quantity what they lack in size. The multifloras are also easier to grow and less bothered by pests.
The basic petunia flower is funnel shape, but hybridizers have created many variations including singles and doubles with petals that have wavy or fringed margins. Many patterns are available in stripes, speckles and borders in an extensive color palette that includes purple, mauve, lavender, pink, red, white and yellow. Leaves and stems are sticky to the touch and have a distinctive odor.
All of the many members of the genus Petunia that contributed to the hundreds of hybrids are native to tropical and sub-tropical areas of South America. One species, P. violacea, has naturalized in parts of the U.S. As a boy in Kentucky, I encountered this plant on springtime walks to school where it grew in profusion along an old streetcar line. Petunia hybrids are now popular garden and container plants the world over.
CultureProvide good garden soil. Space plants 12-18 in (30.5-45.7 cm) apart. Pinch tips to encourage bushiness. Cut stems back to about 6 in (15 cm) when plants become scraggly at mid-season. Light: Like bright sunny situations. Moisture: Water regularly as needed. Avoid overwatering and soggy soils. Hardiness: USDA Zones 9 - 10. The petunia hybrids and the parent stock are tender perennials. Virtually everyone grows these plants as annuals in virtually every zone. Propagation: Plant the tiny seeds indoors in trays and transplant outdoors after frost has past. A much better way is to purchase plants in cell packs or pots.
Use petunias in beds and borders. The spreading grandifloras are best appreciated trailing over the sides of hanging baskets or containers. In Florida petunias are best grown during the cooler seasons when they are least likely to be affected by heat, humidity and fungus.
Available in a galaxy of shapes, patterns and colors, petunias are fast growing and are non-stop bloomers. They are also inexpensive and are easy to find. Every year brings new hybrids for you to enjoy in your gardening creations. As for me I hate these things. They were the only flowers my Mom would buy when I was a kid. My most unpleasant gardening experience to date was the job of deadheading mom's nasty petunia bed - pulling sticky limp flowers from smelly plants in sweltering summer heat. Sticky, stinky, common, sometimes seen growing out of the backs of plaster ducks and burro carts, petunias leave me cold. I will admit that in the last few years I've seen some plantings that I've admired but I don't think I'm ever likely to grow them.
Update 2003: I planted a bunch of 'Wave' petunias, they have such great color I had to and besides they don't seem to stink as badly as I remember (but allergies might have something to do with that). I put in a few dozen purple, blue and white and they are quickly forming great colorful masses. Hmmm, I guess I like petunias now - at least one variety anyway...
Jack Scheper 04/26/99; updated 05/20/03