There’s always a plant that, like Marmite, you love or loathe, and through the ages the petunia has often divided opinion. In fact, during the 1500s people believed that petunias were a symbol of demonic power because they harboured anger and resentment!
Part of the nightshade Solanaceae family, the petunia is closely related to plants like tobacco, cape gooseberry, tomato, potato and chilli pepper. Here’s a potted history of this fascinating flower, explaining how petunia seeds have been developed over several hundreds of years to become one of the most popular choices of all time.
The origin of the name petunia
In the early sixteenth century, Spanish explorers in South America discovered a low-growing, trail-forming, white flowered scented axillaris, which in the Tupi-Guarani language was called Petun. The rough translation of this means the “worthless tobacco plant.” Because of its perceived ugliness, the explorers didn’t think it was worth sending samples back to Spain.
About three hundred years later, in 1823, French King, Joseph Bonaparte, (Napoleon’s Brother) sent explorers back to Argentina. This time they did collect samples of the plant which were sent to Spain. Botanists confirmed the Indian name and placed it in the tobacco family.
How petunias came to Great Britain
In 1831, just a few years later, records show that the great Scottish Explorer John (James) Tweedie came across another species of the petunia when he was exploring the Americas. This time it was the P. violacea which is purple in colour. He too took specimens, which were sent to the Glasgow Botanical Gardens. Tweedie was a fascinating man, listed as a collector for the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens. Of the 35 known species of petunia, Petunia tweedia (categorised as a Grandiflora) was named after him.
Towards the end of the century, in the late 1800s, breeders in England, Germany, America and Japan began crossing samples of petunias 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.
The breakthrough in petunia breeding
Double petunias were hugely sought-after, although they only occurred in 20-30% of petunias grown from seed according to a well-known American Seed company’s catalogue published in 1900.
But by 1934, the Japanese had cracked it, becoming the first country to consistently breed the double petunia. They’d managed to understand, and apply, Mendel’s Third Law of Dominance. (In a cross between two organisms showing contrasting characteristics, the character that appears in the F1 generation is called the dominant one).
There are also F2 type petunias and T&M’s petunia ‘Rainbow’ is a great example of these. By no means lesser plants, F2 just means that they come from seeds collected and grown from a F1 parent. Read our article about the differences between F1 and F2 plants for more information.
Within the same decade, German seed companies looking for colour diversity bred Grandiflora petunias. And in the late 1930s, the American Charles Weddle discovered the fact that ‘doubleness’ was a dominant gene. Crossing a true double with a suitable petunia would result in seeds that would only produce double flowers.
When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, breeders were still racing to find the perfect petunia. Firstly, Claude Hope released the F1 hybrid ‘Connache’. He was instrumental in the hybridisation of the single and double Grandiflora and Multiflora strains we see today. Next, Fred Statt requires our gratitude for breeding disease and weather resistant plants. Later, in 1983, a new class of petunias called Floribunda were created. And finally, in 1995 petunia ‘Purple Wave’ was introduced, followed by the Milliflora in 1996.
So that’s a brief history of how the petunia emigrated from Argentina to Britain. If, like me, you’re curious about the life of John (James) Tweedie, read the rest of my history of the Petunia in Part Two. And if you want more information on petunia growing and care, visit our petunias hub page where you’ll find a wealth of helpful resources.
My name is Amanda and I live in Pembrokeshire with my fiancé and our garden is approximately 116 meters square. I want to share with you my love for gardening and the reasons behind it, from the good to the bad and ugly. I want to do this for my own personal pleasure. If you would like to take the journey with me then please read my blogs and share with me your gardening stories.
I’m a horticulture student at Eden. I’m looking for any Petunia x hybrid that breeds true or do I have to go with a species??
In connection to a historic house museum restored to the period 1865 – 1879, it seems petunias are not appropriate. We are on the west coast of Canada. Petunia seed seems not to be listed in the early deed catalogues we have searched.
This article is amazing! I’m doing a school project on petunias, if you see this can you explain what exactly a double petunia is? I can’t find an answer anywhere, thanks.
Glad you enjoyed the article. A double flower is one which has has extra petals, giving it a full and frilly appearance. Plants are often bred this way as they look showier – although they can also occur naturally as a genetic mutation. One added benefit is that double flowers are generally sterile and therefore last longer than simple, single flowers.
Good luck with your school project
Thank you. Good luck with your school project.
Double flowers are pretty, but if you really want to encourage bees and other pollinators single varieties are easer for them to access. Being a double means that the flower has extra petals, usually like a second layer that makes it look more fuller.
As Sue Sanderson says plants can be bred this way.
If you have any more questions just let me know.
Amanda, in the late 1800s did growers really hybridize petunias in the strict Mendelian meaning?
That’s an interesting question. I genuinely don’t know for certain. There seems to be a lot of controversy over who coined the term genetics. I have started to read into it further- seems like Mendle originally discovered it, but it wasn’t recognised until much later – and then there were two separate thinkers who took the idea further. Would love to know your thoughts if you have any further information on it.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article and making me think deeper on the subject of genetics.
Amanda, I am doing research on a book about Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882). He hybridized petunias in his green house and came up with his own called ‘Vick’s New Fringed’. I know there was no tissue culture. He used pollen from a double and brushed that on a single. That produced many double seeds.That process was a common way of creating a hybrid.
Noel Kingsbury in his book Hybrid writes that hybrizing really started after 1900 with L. H. Bailey in New York at Cornell and Luther Burbank in California.
My book focuses on Vick’s skill in selling Victorian annuals we still grow today, like the Petunia, which is an example I include.
The history of the petunia is important because readers can visualize the plant since it is so common today. Also, today supertunia is the #1 seller for annuals, at least at Proven Winners.
I enjoyed your history of petunias.
Your research for your book sounds really interesting, and once you have published it please send me the details, as I would like to read it. Kind regards. Amanda.
Amanda, will keep in touch with you as the book proceeds. thanks.
Hello Amanda, I promised I would let you know about my new book. Well, the title is All about Flowers: James Vick’s Nineteenth-Century Seed Company (Ohio University Press). It will be out later this month.
It centers on the Victorian flower garden as promoted by Mr. Vick, who was originally from Portsmouth, England and moved to Rochester, New York where he worked as a writer and editor, and then started his own seed company.
Dear Mr Mickey,
Congratulations on the competition of your book. I will take a look online now.
Thank you so much for remembering to tell me.
Dear Amanda – Thank you so much for your wonderful history of petunia. My father is the Charles Weddle you write about. I grew up with petunias everywhere in our small mountain town in Colorado, chosen for the fact that it had the perfect climate for breeding petunias. Claude Hope, who you also mention, was a frequent visitor to our home along with many other flower people. I found your article as I was googling to decide which petunias to put in my planters this year and was so pleased to see that even in 2016 my father is still remembered. Thank you.
Dear Ms Weddle,
Thank you so much for your kind words. I hope you didn’t mind me mentioning your fathers work, but his research into double-flowered petunias was amazing.
My childhood was spent listening to my dad, his parents, siblings, friends, neighbours and cousins discussing potato harvests, sheep dips, milk quotas and crop rotation, I haven’t a clue about farming, but growing things seems to be in our blood. Pottering about in the greenhouse or garden is the extent of my knowledge, so when I did the research for the blog I became really fascinated with the people behind the plants. After all if it wasn’t for them my world would be a less beautiful and interesting place.
Well done Amanda on the history of the Petunia, it is very interesting and look forward to the second part. I hear you had damage as well in the storm with broken glass in your greenhouse, hopefully it won`t take too much to repair it. We lost a front fence and had another one delivered today. Lets hope we don`t get too many more storms like that this year. Good luck with trying petunias this year I am sure you will have great success.
I am so sorry I had no idea that you had left me a message.
Several years on and the greenhouses are still standing.
The petunia trials were brilliant.