Petunias are native to South America. Our flashy, modern hybrids are descendants of two species: Petunia axillaris and Petunia integrifolia. (These are the current botanical classifications; both species have been renamed since they were first bought into cultivation.) The first picture above shows Petunia axillaris. Native to Brazil, it was in cultivation in Europe by 1823. The flower has a very long throat; an uncommon characteristic in today’s hybrids, which are bred to have wide, flat faces. Unlike the majority of modern petunias, this species petunia has a wonderful fragrance, especially in the evening. The long, tubular throat of the flower is an adaptation to attract insect and bird pollinators. I grew this species last season and I was quite pleased with its simple beauty, rain tolerance, heavy bloom, and hardiness. The plants continued to bloom after frosts in the mid 20s F.
I do not have a picture of Petunia integrifolia. Originally, this fragrant species was called P. violacea, for its deep purple color. This species is native to Argentina and first bloomed in Europe in 1831. It has smaller leaves and flowers than P. axillaris. Hybrids between the two species appeared by 1837 in various colors: pale pink with a dark center, pale yellow with a dark center, white with a dark center. Some of these early hybrids had streaked and veined flowers similar to a popular modern strain of veined petunias. Double petunias were introduced from France in the 1840s. Petunias became quite popular in the mid nineteenth century; later, by the 1880s, petunias lost popularity as geraniums became fashionable. Their popularity revived again after 1920.
All the oldest named seed strains of petunias from the nineteenth and early twentieth century have disappeared. The oldest seed strain available today of a named variety is ‘Balcony’, in a mix of colors, from the 1920s. The second picture shows ‘Balcony’ blooming in pots. The flower colors include purples, pinks, whites and lavenders. Their fragrance is excellent, especially in the evening. Fragrance, a charming attribute of many antique flowers, is often absent in modern hybrid petunias. ‘Balcony’ petunias grow about 10 inches high and spread two to three feet wide. This makes them suitable for bedding out, window boxes and hanging baskets. The plants bloomed for months this last season.
The last two pictures are of flowers of an heirloom “passalong” seed strain now sold as Old-Fashioned Climbing’ petunias. Plant habit is gently trailing and the colors are soft pastels. Petals of the individual flowers of this strain are thin and filmy, with a more delicate appearance than any other petunias available today. The blooms glow with light captured in the transluscent petals, and fragrance is wonderful. The plants are narrow— less spreading than modern varieties, so I planted them fairly close together in window boxes and baskets. This strain is probably the oldest remaining example of nineteenth century petunias, considering the plant’s slender habit and the very delicate, filmy flowers.
This year I will try a few more very heirloom petunias: ‘Rose of Heaven’ from the 1930s; ‘Alderman’ and ‘Fire Chief’, both from the 1950s. All are fragrant.