In May every year my church dispatches me to a local greenhouse to buy potted plants for all the mothers in the congregation. While I am there, I can’t resist purchasing at least a couple for myself. Even when I can’t afford much else, I always get at least one of the “new” petunias. There are, after all, few plants that offer more bloom for your buck.
Pinching back for bushier plants
The Amish growers who own the greenhouse do an excellent job of pinching them back, so they always are bushy and full of buds. Even though the modern cultivars generally are sold as single plants rather than four or six-packs, they often bloom heavily enough to look like a crowd. (All the 'Peppy Plum' flowers below, for example, are on one plant.)
Petunias come in many colors and patterns
I tend to favor the more unusual petunias: those with very dark hues, stripes or veined centers, or even constellations sparkling over their petals such as ‘Night Sky.” But I’ve also grown and gushed over some of the original and most basic, including exserta and integrifolia, which originated in South America. Although the former is a recently discovered red Brazilian type, the magenta Argentinian integrifolia (AKA violacea) is the petunia from which most others sprung. A night-blooming white variety called nyctaginiflora or axillaris also played a crucial role in early breeding in the 1800s.
It may explain why the fragrance of the flowers tends to be much stronger in late afternoon or evening. Keep in mind that antique petunias such as ‘Alderman,’ ‘Rainmaster,’ and ‘Old Fashioned Climbing’ varieties usually offer more perfume than modern cultivars do.
One of my favorites is the now heirloom ‘California Giants’ (AKA Petunia superbissima), which I have grown from seed at least a couple different times. Although the plants of that cultivar tend to be gangly, the blooms are huge, intricately veined and sometimes ruffled or semi-double. I suspect the current Spellbound series may have those Giants “blood” in it, since its flowers are very similar to theirs.
Growing petunias from seed
Germinating petunias is not difficult, since you just need to scatter their fine seed over the surface of your damp seed-starting mix, press it in, and keep the mix warm until tiny seedlings pop up—generally within 3 to 5 days. It helps if you have pelleted seed which you can space, as the baby petunias tend to come up in a thick mass otherwise. Because they are so tiny when they emerge, you will want to give them plenty of time to mature before summer. I usually start them in mid-February.
Once you grow petunias, it's hard to give them up
Back around 2005, I was avidly sowing ‘Flambe’ and many other of the Italian dolcissima species, entranced by the idea that no two flowers on a plant would be exactly the same. (It’s hard to believe that was almost 15 years ago!) Then there was the Sophistica line with its sophisticated greens and bicolors such as the "Antique Shades' bloom in the banner image beside the garden cherub's head.
My picks at the greenhouse last year included the coffee and cream hues of Supertunia ‘Latte’ and the “nutty” green and white half unfurled blooms of the Ray series ‘Pistachio Cream.’ This year I'm taking a walk on the dark side with the purples of Sweetunia 'Miss Marvelous' and 'Veranda Double Sugar Plum.' So I can’t wait to see what those Amish growers have in store for me next spring!
The integrifolia photo is by Annie's Annuals from the Dave's Garden PlantFiles. The other photos are my own.