There is always a plant that, like Marmite, you either love or loathe, and it appears that through the
ages the petunia has been this plant. As part of the Solanaceae family, it is closely related to the tobacco, cape gooseberry, tomato, potato, chilli pepper and deadly nightshade.
In the early sixteenth century when Queen Elizabeth I reigned, Spanish explorers in South America
discovered a low growing, trail forming, white flowered scented Axillaris, which in the Tupi-Guarani language was called Petun. This roughly translated from their language to the “worthless tobacco plant.” But, because of its perceived ugliness, the explorers did not think it was worth sending samples of it back to Spain. And ironically, anyone in Britain during the fifteen hundreds believed that the petunia was a symbol of the demonic power of satanism as it was reputed to harbour anger and resentment.
Fast forward about three hundred years to Eighteen Twenty Three, during the reign of King George III. It’s just after the Napoleonic Wars and the French King, Joseph Bonaparte, (Napoleon’s Brother) has sent explores back to Argentina. This time they send samples of the plant back to Spain, where botanists confirmed the Indian name for it and place it in the tobacco family. Just a few years later there are records that state in 1831 the great Scottish Explorer John (James) Tweedie was exploring the Americas, and he came across another genus of the Petunia the Violacea which is purple in colour. He too, took specimens of the plant and he sent them to the Glasgow Botanical Gardens.
Tweedie is also listed as a collector for the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens and out of the 35 genus of petunia, there is one named after him. Petunia Tweedia. Categorised as a Grandiflora the series is an example of this genus. He is an extraordinary and inspiring person and there is more about him in part two of this blog. In the late eighteen hundreds breeders, especially in England Germany, America and Japan began crossing the sample of petunias they had in search of more varied colours and larger petals. These early crossings were referred to as Petunia X Hybrida although they were not strictly hybrids.
In Nineteen Hundred a well known American Seed company noted in their sales catalogue that
double petunias only occurred in twenty to thirty percent of petunias grown from seed. Moving to Nineteen Thirty Four, a mere eighty two years ago, when King George IV reigned, the Japanese once again came to the forefront of petunia breeding, by being the first to breed the consistently double petunia. They had managed to understand and apply Mendel’s Third Law of Dominance. (In a cross between two organisms pure for any pair [pairs] of contrasting characteristics the character that appears in the F1 generation is called the dominant one).* So now you know why so many seed packets have an F1 hybrid on them.
There are also F2 type Petunias and T&M’s Petunia Rainbow is an example of these. It does not mean that it is a lesser plant, it just means that its the seeds collected and grown from a F1 parent. To read more on the differences between F1 and F2 plants I would recommend you read the info pages on the T&M website. Within the same decade, German seed companies bred Grandiflora Petunias looking for colour diversity, and in the late Nineteen Thirties the American Charles Weddle discovered the fact doubleness was a dominant gene and by crossing a true double with a suitable petunia would result in seeds that would only produce double flowers.
Queen Elizabeth II is crowned in Nineteen Fifty Three and breeders are still trying to find the perfect petunia, Firstly there is Claude Hope who releases the F1 hybrid cultivator Connache. He is instrumental in the producing of the hybridisation of the single and double Grandiflora and Multiflora strains we see today, In addition there is Fred Statt who we must thank for breeding disease and weather resistant plants. In Nineteen Eighty Three a new class of petunias called Floribunda are created. In 1995 Petunia ‘Purple Wave’ is introduced and in 1996 the Milliflora is bred.
So that’s a brief history of how the petunia emigrated from Argentina to Britain, but I was curious about the life of John (James) Tweedie so read the rest of my history of the Petunia in Part Two.