It’s summer, and petunias are in their colorful glory. The candy-store colors of the popular flower, many with ruffled edges, grace our gardens with its familiar fragrance. Its distinctive shape reminds me of the old Victrola in grandma’s parlor and my summers on the farm with her. Its sweet fragrance always takes my memories back to those sunny summer days of childhood.
The many varieties of the plant are said to have come from two varieties, both from South America: the Petunia nyctaginflora or “night-scented petunia” and the Petunia violacea, the “purple flowering petunia.”
In its native lands, the petunia was considered a weed that grew rampant in the countryside instead of the flower we cultivate for show and color. Spanish conquerors, interested only in gold and silver, fame and fortune, ignored the beauty of the small, simple flower. The Indians called it petun from the Quiche language meaning “worthless tobacco,” indicating their knowledge that it was related to the tobacco family, which was called petyma, putuma, or petema by different tribes.
In 1823, a plant hunter “discovered” the petunia with its white trumpet-like flowers growing along the Rio de la Plata in Argentina. He sent seeds back to France and England, where the plant bloomed the following year.
It was christened Petunia nyctaginflora because of its heavy fragrance at night, which attracted moths. It is now known as Petunia Axillaris. In 1830, a second variety was found in Argentina near the bank of the Uruguay River. It was also sent back to England and flowered there for the first time in 1831.
Neither variety gained much attention or popularity in Europe. Like many things in life, timing is everything. In the 20th century, the petunia’s time of glory arrived when plant breeders in the United States began experiments to produce showy doubles and grandifloras that resemble carnations and peonies with their many layers of petals.
The plant’s hardiness and ability to survive and sometimes even thrive in drought or dry conditions make it a favorite flower in summer gardens or cascading from baskets on decks or patios. In spite of its current popularity, the seeds of such showy plants, always revert to their simple native heritage and produce only the purple or white flowers of its ancestors.