American Gardening 14(5): 276-280 (May 1893)
L. H. Bailey

PETUNIAS have long been attractive to me. Some twelve years ago, having succeeded in raising a few plants with double flowers from imported seed, I determined to try my hand at pollinating a few blossoms, in hope of getting a double flower of my own, as I may say, parentage. It may be as well to state here that double petunias, like many other double flowers, do not yield any seed themselves, but in order to get seed which will yield double flowers a single-flowering variety must be fertilized with the pollen from a double flower, when the seed from this flower will yield a certain percentage of double flowering plants.

My first attempts at pollinating were of the crudest description. I simply took the anthers from a double flower and placed them on the stigma of the one I wished to pollinate. This being my first attempt at pollination, and owing to the crudeness of my method, I was not very successful, but I succeeded in getting a few double flowers from the seedlings, flowers which would not be given a second glance now, but none of my best flowers of later production have given me half the satisfaction that those few poor ones did. They were double—there was no mistake about that—and they proved to me that I could grow double flowers if I wanted to. From that small beginning—I do not believe that I pollinated over a dozen—I have continued year after year, getting a new strain from this man and another from that, to cross with those I already had, and the result is shown in the illustration of a few of my seedlings of 1892.

It may be prejudice on my part, but I must say that I have a strong partiality for a bed of petunias. Hardly any other plant which is used for summer planting gives the satisfaction that the petunia does. It is a rapid grower, a free bloomer, and is not, at least with me, troubled with insect pests. The best double flowers also make excellent pot plants, and give a constant succession of bloom throughout the entire summer. For pot culture, or for any one wishing to grow double flowers entirely, it is always better to procure plants of named varieties from a florist, but a packet of good seed will always yield a large percentage of double flowers. They will not all come double, as some always take after the female parent, the single flower, but at least half ought to be double. To me the great charm of growing seedlings consists in the uncertainty. One watches the flowers expanding. Is this going to be a double? Is that? Yes, here is one that there is no mistake about. Look at the mass of petals, still showing green, but there is not room in the corolla to contain them all, and one watches them, day by day, until the color comes and the fully developed flower is there, in all its beauty.

To obtain the best result, I sow the seed in March, in either a hotbed or in the house in shallow boxes, covering it very lightly with fine soil. When the seedlings are about half an inch high, I prick them into small pots, and about the end of May plant out into the border. The petunia is a gross feeder, likes a rich soil and an abundance of water, and the plants should have plenty of room for their development. I plant them a foot apart each way, and in a short time the ground cannot be seen between the plants. Owing to the constant hybridizing that this plant undergoes in the production of double flowers, it is almost impossible to give a description of the colors of any single variety propagated from cuttings. I could describe the colors and markings of each of the varieties shown in the engraving, but there is no certainty that they will all have the same coloring when they bloom again this year. I have had self-colored flowers change to blotched ones the second year and blotched varieties become self-colored, and even from the same plant flowers can be picked which, when placed side by side, one would be positive came from two or more distinct plants. The general shape of the flower, and the fringing or frilling of the petals always remains the same in one variety, but the coloring changes.

For the sake of any of my readers who might desire to try growing double seed. I will describe my system, which I find gives the best results. First, in order to have plants of strong vitality, in the late summer I pick out the best of the seedlings of that year, both double and single, and strike cuttings, which are wintered in the ordinary way, in a cool greenhouse. Another point which I am particular about is, if possible, to see that all the single plants show signs of their double parentage. This may be seen in a small leaflet growing out of one or more of the anthers. These produce seed freely, although, as a rule, only when pollinated by hand. I never propagate for seed growing from plants which have been for several years in cultivation, as I find that they seem to lose in vigor by constant propagation from cuttings. At the end of May I plant out in a sheltered spot in rich soil these wintered plants, the singles against a wire trellis and the doubles in the ordinary way, a foot apart. The single plants are trained to the trellis for convenience in pollinating. All the flowers that are not hand-pollinated are picked off, so that all the strength of the plants may be devoted to the development of the double seed, and that there may be no danger of mixing single seed with it. As soon as the flowers of the double plants are fully expanded they are picked, torn to pieces, and the anthers carefully picked out and placed in a sunny window to dry. As soon as the single flowers can be opened by hand, I remove the anthers with a pair of tweezers. This must be done before the anthers burst, for the minute they do this the flower is no longer of any use to the hybridizer. When the flower opens, the double pollen is applied to the stigma with a camels-hair brush, the flower is drawn into the shape of a bag and tied with thread, and the operation is complete. They are tied to prevent insects carrying pollen from other flowers and destroying the efforts of the hybridizer.

The principal difference between my system and that of most other growers is in planting the petunias in the open ground. The claim is usually made that the seed is "pot grown;" that is, from plants grown in pots. My contention is, and I think that I have pretty well proved it in practice, that a plant grown in a pot has not the vigor of one whose roots are allowed the range of a garden-bed, and consequently the pot-grown plant is not in a position to yield the same quality of seed of one grown in the open ground, while a continuance of the practice of pot-growing must necessarily impair the vitality of the parent plant, and through it that of its offspring. While I am satisfied that our climate here is one remarkably suited to the best development of the petunia, I think that in any place where the plants can be grown in the open ground, seed from such plants will give better results than will that from plants grown in pots. This is my experience.

Some Seedling Double Petunias

The flowers shown in the engraving are all from named varieties, and their names and the colors which they showed last year are here given: The one at the upper left-hand corner of the engraving is named Rita, and is white, blotched with carmine. The one at the right of it is Hilda, a purple. To the right of Hilda is Comox, a purple, tipped with white. Directly below Rita is Aimee, a white, blotched with rose. To the right of Aimee is Naniamo, a white To the right of that is Annie, a white, shaded with rose. In the third row, the left-hand flower is Cariboo, white, veined and tinted with rose. The middle one is Vancouver, white, shaded with light purple. Lilian is at the right, and is carmine, tipped with white. In the lowest row, at the left, is Zuadra, a light purple. tipped with white. At the right is Alberni, a purple, bordered with white. The flower at the lower right-hand corner is named Cicely, and is a white, blotched with purple and shaded with carmine—G. A. McTAVISH, British Columbia.


*Bot. Mag. t. 3113.
Floricultural Cabinet, i. 144.

The modern petunia is a strange compound of the two original species which were introduced to cultivation less than three-quarters of a century ago. The first was found by Commerson on the shores of the La Plata in South America, and from the dried specimens which he sent home the French botanist, Jussieu, constructed the genus petunia, and named the plant Petunia nyctaginiflora, in allusion to the four-o'clock-like or nyctaginia-like flowers. The plant appears to have been introduced into cultivation in 1823. It was a plant of upright habit, thick, sticky leaves and stems, and very long-tubed white flowers, which exhale a strong perfume at nightfall. This plant, nearly or even wholly pure, is not infrequent in old gardens, and fair strains of it can be had in the market. I remember that it self-sowed year after year in the old garden in my younger days, and even now an occasional plant may be found in some undisturbed corner. This plant is fairly well represented in the drawing The stem leaves of this species are said to be sessile—or without stalks—but the lower leaves in strong specimens like that in the engraving are often conspicuously narrowed into long petioles. Possibly this is a mark of hybridity, but I am rather inclined to think that the pure species has the lower leaves prominently stalked. This old-fashioned petunia is a coarse plant, and is now little known. It was not a difficult matter for the second species to dislodge it.

Petunia nyctaginiflora

This second species of petunia first flowered in the Glasgow Botanical Garden in July, 1831, from seeds sent the fall before from Buenos Ayres by Mr. Tweedie; and in 1831 an excellent colored plate was made of it, under the name of Salpiglossis integrifolia.* This is a neater plant than the other, with a decumbent base, narrower leaves and small violet-purple flowers, which have a very broad or ventricose tube scarcely twice longer than the slender calyx-lobes. This neat little plant has been known under a variety of names, having been referred to nierembergia by two or three botanists. Lindley was the first to refer it to the genus petunia, and called it Petunia violacea, the name which it still bears. It was also early known as Petunia phoenicea, but this name is forgotten by the present generation of gardeners. It became popular immediately upon its introduction. In August. 1833, Joseph Harrison wrote that it was "one of the most valuable acquisitions that has been made to our collections of late years."†

Petuniania [sic] violacea early hybridized with the older white petunia, P. nyctaginiflora, and as early as 1837 a number of these hybrids—indistinguishable from the common garden forms of the present day—were illustrated in colors in the Botanical Magazine. Sir W. J. Hooker, who described these hybrids, declared that “it must be confessed that here, as in many other vegetable productions, the art and skill of the horticulturist has improved nature.” "Cultivation alone," he wrote, "has, indeed, very much increased the size of the flowers and foliage of this plant [P. violacea], so that it can scarcely be recognized as belonging to the same species as the native specimens sent by Mr. Tweedie." This was about the time that Phlox Drummondii was becoming popular in England, having been sent there from Texas, in 1835, by Drummond. These two plants were novelties. "These varieties of petunia and the Phlox Drummondii," Hooker continues, "were decidedly among the greatest ornaments of the greenhouse in the Glasgow Botanic Garden during the month of May (1836), a season too early for them to come to perfection in the open border." These hybrid petunias were even described as a distinct species, Nierembergia Atkinsiana; and this fact is still remembered in some books in Petunia violacea var. Atkinsiana. Harrison gave a colored plate of these hybrid petunias, in 1837 in his Floricultural Cabinet, but without description. He says, in an earlier issue of the magazine for that year, that the "impregnation of P. violacea and P. nyctaginiflora has produced several very charming varieties, such as pale pink with a dark center, sulphur with dark center, white with dark center, and others streaked and veined with dark. The size of the flowers of some of these hybrids has been much increased, some being three inches across." It would be interesting to know if Petunia intermedia, which was introduced about the same time as P. violacea, and which appears to be lost to cultivation, entered into any of these early hybrids. Here, then, our garden petunias started, as hybrids; but the most singular part of the history is that the true old Petunia violacea is lost to cultivation!

Petunia.—Very near the true P. violacea

The pen-drawing herewith shows the closest approach to the true P. violacea which I have observed in several years' study of the petunia. Two or three plants came from a packet of mixed seed. But even this shows a flower-tube too long and a limb or border too wide; and perhaps the leaves are too broad. The nearest approach to the true species, among the named varieties which I have seen, is the neat little white-tubed, purple-limbed Countess of Ellesmere. Vilmorin makes this variety a subdivision of Petunia violacea, and calls it Gloire de Segrez, or Petunia violacea var. oculata. I imagine that even Lindley did not have the pure species when he described P. violacea in 1833, for he says that it differs from P. nyctaginiflora "in nothing whatever except the inflated tube of its corolla and the size of its embryo." The common form of garden petunia is well shown in the illustration, page 281. Here the plant is low and slender, like the old P. violacea, but the tube is greatly lengthened and reduced in diameter by the influence of P. nyctaginiflora, and the colors sport into every combination of the purple and white of the original parents. These little petunias assume a fairly permanent light-purple shade when left to themselves for a time, and they then reproduce themselves with tolerable accuracy; and they afford an admirable example of a hybrid which is abundantly fertile and which holds its own year after year.

Various curiously marked types of petunias have appeared and are lost. One of the early forms had a red body color, with grass-green borders. This was figured by Harrison in 1838 under the name of Petunia marginata prasina. These green-bordered strains appear now and then, and Mr. Carman, in using them in crossing experiments, obtained “rosettes of green leaves without the rudiments of calyx, corolla, stamens or pistils."* A faintly striped variety, called Petunia vittata, was also figured by Harrison at the same time. The stripes originated in the throat of the flower and ran outwards, as they do in most of the striped sorts of the present day but in 1844 he announced a variety, Petunia Nixenii, in which the stripes originate at the border of the flower and proceed inwards.

The most singular development in these hybrid petunias is the appearance of the very broad-mouthed fringed flowers, with short, sessile and more or less trough-like leaves. A flower of one of these, from the strain sold as Burpee's Defiance, is shown in the photograph. These forms may not come true from seed, but among any batch of seedlings flowers of the most remarkable beauty of shape and intensity of color may be found, and in some of them the texture of the flower is almost as firm as that of a rose petal. A seedling from this Burpee's Defiance strain is shown in the pen drawing (page 282). I have called it the Cornell. The flower is of the most intense royal purple, with a velvety texture which reminds one of the richest silk plush. This velvet surface of petunia flowers is very marked in some of the recent forms, and I suppose that the character comes from Petunia violacea, which is said by Vilmorin to have had a velvety cast. This Cornell propagates true from cuttings. Some petunias do not. The double fringed petunia, shown so-well on page 277, is the highest development of the plant; but by most persons the gorgeous single forms of the Defiance and other strains will be preferred.

Of late years the improvement of the petunia has been comparatively neglected, but it is worthy of greater attention from flower lovers. Yet, during 1892 twenty-six new varieties were introduced in this country. To scientists it has particular interest, because the contemporaneous forms have developed widely from the well-known original species within little more than half a century.—L. H. BAILEY.

Petunia, Burpee's Defiance Strain.—Hybrid   The Common Petunia. Petunia violacea x P. nyctaginiflora   Cornell Petunia.—Hybrid