Their sticky texture as you deadhead them, the smell, not only of the plant but also of just-watered, fertile compost, their intense colorways: petunias are a Proustian kind of flower, one you likely associate with a parent or grandparent. My mother, a New Yorker for whom style was substance, made a ritual of planting petunias to welcome summer (they make the easiest kind of impact for fair-weather gardeners). But with style, comes rules: more is more with petunias but only if we are talking about quantity. Mixing and harmonizing varieties is a form of self-expression, but throwing every kind of bedding plant into the mix spoils it for everyone.
Photography by Britt Willoughby Dyer for Gardenista.
Petunias that bloom in discreet white or velvety black are a highly disciplined take on the rich and jungly potential of this South American flower. Potatoes’ cousins, petunias mix well with other members of the nightshade family. Outside the home of a friend whose interiors are determinedly white, I was struck by her window box combination of white petunias with creamy off-white tobacco plants, sharing the same fresh green, fuzzy texture of leaf, stem and calyx but with added scent from the tobacco plants and unpredictable trailing from the petunias.
Veining on a petunia draws attention to the flower’s simple trumpet shape, while stripes and edging are more carnival—and why not? The party will not last forever. Petunias are inherently jolly: their colors and patterns are varied enough in themselves to invoke the kind of exuberance found in vintage Marimekko dresses (think late ’60s, early ’70s). There is simply no need for a smorgasbord of other ingredients in a petunia display.
Harmonizing petunias is key, boosted as always with lots of green. An effective trailing vine that is seen all over New York’s West Village in summer, but which is only available at specialist nurseries outside of North America, is the sweet potato vine Ipomea batatas ‘Marguerite’, its bright green, distinctively lobed leaves adding more South American rhythm to the mix.
Petunia excerta is a fairly recent discovery from Brazil, and has smaller, less open trumpets of brightest scarlet. It is the only type of petunia to be pollinated by hummingbirds and should be grown solo, as it is a rare species, hybridizing easily.
Hanging baskets are where it starts to go wrong with petunias, despite their great potential. In the UK particularly, an urge to be ironic is in the DNA, and pub petunias have become part of the national canon of self-mockery (see the Churchill Arms). Resist and desist: petunias (as well as fuchsias, pelargoniums and begonias), have their own special qualities and must be treated with respect.
For more in the series, see:
- Rethinking Topiary: A Garden Tradition, Loosened Up
- Chrysanthemums: Rethinking a Fast-Food Flower
- Zinnias: Rethinking a Norman Rockwell Flower