Anyone of voting age with a mother who gardens probably remembers old-fashioned petunias. Their fragrant, ruffled blossoms in every conceivable color have long been fixtures in flowerbeds, window boxes, and hanging baskets.
Trouble was, they didn't enjoy the heat, humidity, and downpours that characterize Southern summers. By July 4, they'd poop out. By July 5, we were fed up.
It's not that way anymore. New types and hybrids available in garden centers like our climate just fine. In most of the South, you can plant them in spring after the last frost, and they will bloom continuously into the fall and require very little maintenance. In the Coastal and Tropical South, where they're winter annuals, you can plant them in fall, and they will bloom through the following spring.
Can't Stop the Madness
Probably the first petunias to offer hope to Southern gardeners were the Madness Series. Unlike the then-popular Grandiflora types (which have 4-inch, ruffled flowers that turn to mush in rainy weather), Madness petunias hold up. Still available, they have 3-inch blooms in a full range of colors; many flowers offer attractive veining.
Ride the Waves
The next big splash in petunia progress came in 1995 when 'Purple Wave' was named an All-America Selections winner. The Kirin Brewery Company in Japan developed this remarkable plant and then partnered with Ball Horticultural Company to distribute it in the U.S. (Its origin gives new meaning to the phrase, "buying a six-pack of flowers.")
What's so remarkable about it? Well, the plant spreads out like a ground cover. A single plant can ramble 4 feet or more. Sporting 2- to 3-inch blossoms, 'Purple Wave' also blooms all summer without being pinched back. Purple was the first color of the series, but now you can buy pink, lavender, lilac, and blue versions as well.
Two other Wave petunias also deserve mention. If you like a more controlled spreader, choose a selection from the Easy Wave Series; they grow 8 to 10 inches tall and about 3 feet wide. But it's the new Tidal Wave Series that has me foaming at the mouth. (No wonder; they were also bred by the Kirin Brewery Company.) These dense, mounding plants grow up to 3 feet high and 4 feet wide. Their 2-inch blooms just shrug off summer showers without missing a beat. 'Tidal Wave Silver,' noted for its silvery-white petals and dark purple centers, even survived winter in my Alabama garden and bloomed through a second summer.
Share the Fantasy
Hybrid Millifloras, a new class of dwarf petunias, debuted in 1996. Forming mounds 6 to 8 inches high and wide, they need no pinching to keep blooming. Small 1- to 1 1/2-inch flowers come in every color except yellow. Hybrid Millifloras such as the Fantasy Series are perfect for containers and hanging baskets.
Meet the Parents
Modern petunias are hybrids of species such as the fragrant white or wild petunia ( Petunia axillaris) and violet petunia ( P. violacea, also sold as P. integrifolia). While the former is rarely cultivated today, the latter is a rediscovered favorite. A trailing plant with small, rosy purple flowers that have dark throats, it blooms nonstop from spring till fall and makes a superb choice for containers. It is also winter hardy from the Lower South on down.
How low can you go? When it comes to trailing petunias, pretty darn low. If 4-inch-high 'Purple Wave' is too tall for you, consider the Supertunia and Surfinia Series. Used in beds, they grow practically flat; they're wonderful cascaders when planted in containers. Both come in a full range of colors and never require pinching.
What Petunias Need
As great as these new ones are, they do have a few demands. Give them full sun with good air circulation, and provide fertile, loose, well-drained soil. To keep them going and making more flowers, feed them every two weeks with a balanced, water-soluble fertilizer such as Miracle-Gro Water Soluble All Purpose Plant Food 15-30-15 or Peters Professional 20-20-20. That's it.
Give petunias a second look. After that, you'll be looking for more.
"New Types of Perfect Petunias" is from the March 2006 issue of Southern Living.