Milliflora, grandiflora, cascade, supertunia, wave petunia; what happened to the petunia? You may be excused if you’re confused and don’t know the answer to that question. Petunias have come a long way from the two species discovered in South America in the 17th and 18th centuries. Petunia axillaris (white flowers) and Petunia violacea (purple) have small flowers and a straggly growth habit but they are the parents of the revolution.
Even back then breeders were at work trying to improve the petunia. By the 19th century there were plants with exciting colours, some with large and some with double forms. But all of these were random events; chance crossings of species. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that the first consistently double petunias were introduced. After the interruption of World War II work continued in earnest to bring not only double forms but those with larger single blooms coupled with better disease and weather resistance.
The first red petunia was introduced in 1953 and the first yellow came in 1977. The floribunda series known as ‘Madness’ was created in 1983. Floribundas were the gold standard in petunias at the time. ‘Madness’ was, and still is, a great performer in poor weather conditions and blooms heavily through the season.
But plant breeders are never satisified. If a plant series is good there’s no reason it can’t be better. Another revolution occurred in 1995 with the introduction of the Wave petunia, a vigorous groundcover spreading (up to four feet) variety that bloomed prodigiously and was grown from seed. The Japanese beer company Kirin actually discovered it while researching plants that could be used for flavouring beer!
Around the same time the Suntory company was developing a similar product propagated from cuttings, the Surfinia. A few years later we had the Supertunia and the rest, as they say, is history. Supertunias and their progeny are amazing performers in containers or gardens. They’re vigorous, free flowering and self-cleaning, surprisingly drought tolerant once established and even able to withstand a degree or two of frost. And they’re available in an astonishing range of colours.
Regardless of the variety petunias share the same requirements. They all do best in full sun and love the heat. Petunias respond well to fertilizer, especially when grown in containers. This is particularly true with supertunias and Wave petunias so keep applying water soluble fertilizer throughout the growing season.
Many of the newer generation of petunias don’t have that annoying sticky feel to the foliage any longer and they’re self-cleaning to you don’t have to pick off the spent blooms. Even the older types are easy to coerce into looking fresh and new after a few months of blooming; simply shear back the stems and fertilize and they’ll respond with fresh foliage and flower buds in no time.
Part of the fun of petunia shopping now is to look for the exotic bloom colours. Through the years I’ve seen some flowers that are truly amazing; jet black, bubblegum pink, picotee bi-colour, heavily veined, striped, edged, pastel. There is a colour and a style to go with any combination you might dream up in a container or in the garden.

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