Petunia ‘Surfinia Star Burgundy’ from Thompson & Morgan

Surfinia petunias are a popular choice for hanging baskets
Image: Petunia ‘Surfinia Star Burgundy’ from Thompson & Morgan

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

Petunia ‘Crazytunia Tiki Torch’ from T&M

Available in exotic colours, petunias are now bred to be bright and weather-resistant
Image: Petunia ‘Crazytunia Tiki Torch’ from Thompson & Morgan

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

Petunia x hybrida 'Sparklers' from Thompson & Morgan

Petunia ‘Sparklers’ is the first star-shaped petunia to grow from seed
Image: Petunia x hybrida ‘Sparklers’ from Thompson & Morgan

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

Petunia grandiflora 'Cascade Pink Orchid Mist' F1 Hybrid from Thompson & Morgan

The double and semi-double grandiflora blooms are excellent in baskets and containers
Image: Petunia grandiflora ‘Cascade Pink Orchid Mist’ F1 Hybrid from T&M

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.

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