For the love of Petunias

Wednesday, 18 January 2017  |  Alison

Petunias, along with fuchsias and geraniums, are one of our best loved annuals and a welcome and popular sight, gracing our British and European summer hanging baskets, bedding displays and patio pots.  

But did you know that Petunias are native to South America and are actually perennials, but they are treated as annuals in the UK as these tender darlings dislike cold and will not survive frosts.  Petunias are members of the Solanaceae or nightshade family which includes tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, cape gooseberries and the tobacco plant. 

They were originally discovered by Spanish explorers when Queen Elizabeth I reigned in the sixteenth century.  Named petun, meaning “tobacco” by the native Tupi-Guarani people, these white flowered and rather straggly plants were considered to be inferior and roughly translated the plant was known as the ‘worthless tobacco plant’ and the explorers didn’t bother sending any examples back to Spain.

It was not until the early 1800’s during the reign of King George III that the Petunia arrived in Europe with samples finally sent back to Spain where botanists confirmed their name and placed the Petunia in the tobacco family.

Since then, mostly in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, plant breeders all over the world have strived to create more varied Petunias in shape, colour and size; interestingly the scent part of the flowers had, until recent years, been all but bred out.  

However, with the creation of Surfinias in the 1990’s, (which are trailing, hanging Petunias), breeders put the smell back into many of the varieties that are available today such as the most gloriously scented  Surfinia Tumbelina Blue Vein and Surfinia Tumbelina Pink Vein.  I am so lucky to be able to take in the perfume en masse at our nursery when the scent wafts around our glasshouses in the summer months.   

Petunias now come in a marvellous range of colours from whites and yellows through to pinks, reds, mauves, purples and even black.  Along with single coloured petunias, they can be stripy, blotchy, two-toned, edged with another colour, frilly, single-flowered, double-ruffled, variegated or multi- coloured; the combinations are almost endless.

Coinciding with the 20 year anniversary of the untimely death of Diana, Princess of Wales, a new and beautiful Petunia has been launched and I think this may well become one of the most popular and favourite flowers for 2017.  Petunia Amore - Queen of Hearts is quite the loveliest Petunia with yellow/cream petals featuring distinctive deep pink/red heart shapes.


The simple trumpet-shaped flowers of the Petunia, however, are anything but simple, with many fabulous hybrid varieties to choose from.  There are four main types of hybrid Petunia with the first and most abundant being the Grandifloras, with large petals up to 10cm across.  Next are the spreading Hedgifloras and then come the more compact but floriferous Multifloras, used widely in bedding schemes.  Finally, there is the smallest Petunia with dainty 2/3cm flowers, the Millifloras.

Petunias are easiest to grow on from plug plants as they can be difficult to get going from seed.  For best results give Petunias full sun and feed them throughout their long flowering season and frequently deadhead to encourage more flowers and pinch them back regularly, which makes them branch and keeps them blooming well from late May to late September/October.  If you have somewhere that is frost free with some warmth during the winter months, you could try taking cuttings of petunias in September and then over-winter them.  You can then grow them on in the spring and plant out into your displays the following June.

I will definitely be trying the new Petunia Amore - Queen of Hearts this summer in my hanging baskets and tubs and possibly a window box or two.  Used with a combination of trailing Aztec Red Verbena and Helichrysum Silver Mist, I think they could look rather fetching.  But you can be the judge of this; I will post a photograph later in the year and you can see if you agree.
Brookside Nursery