Just about every year, my mother plants hanging baskets, window boxes, or planters with at least some type of petunia. Lately, she’s been making sure the hanging baskets off my grandmother’s fence are stocked with purple ones.
I do not share my mother’s preference. Petunias are beautiful, don’t get me wrong, and they last and last and last–so long as f the faded blooms are cut away, the flowers will blossom over and over again through the summer and well into the autumn. But I just cannot get over the smell. Most common petunia varieties smell like a squashed lady-bug to me: kind of grassy and pleasant, but harsh and caustic, too.
This weird sort of love/hate relationship to petunias might be the cause of some contradictory lore. For example, Victorian flower meanings would have had the petunia be a very bipolar flower depending on the source consulted or under the conditions the flower was gifted. For example, in some contexts, a gift of petunias could represent haughtiness, resentment and anger over something the recipient has done. If given to a loved one, their pleasant appearance means the recipient’s presence is soothing to the other person.
As far as I can tell, no one has really tried to make much use of petunias in magic. I think that might be because they are just so mundane in our world today: any fool can grow them, so they show up everywhere. Certainly, they wouldn’t have the allure of mandrake. However, maybe their Victorian versatility could carry over into magic? I should probably experiment and meditate and see what correspondences call to me. In the meantime, I think some intellectual investigation could set us off down a fairly solid path.
Today’s common garden petunias are often a hybrid (Petunia × hybrida) between P. axillaris (the large white or night-scented petunia) and P. integrifolia (the violet-flowered petunia. They are cultivated genus of flowering plants of South American origin, and they are closely related with tobacco, cape gooseberries, tomatoes, deadly nightshades, potatoes and chili peppers. In fact, their name comes from the an older French word for tobacco, petun, which was in turn taken from a Tupi-Guarani language.
With the petunia’s relation to tobacco and nightshades, they could probably substitute for these plants to some level. After all, as Cunningham notes in his Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, datura and nightshade can substitute for tobacco, and both are related to it, too. I’m not certain how efficacious petunia substitutes could be for these things; after all, petunias are basically non-toxic little guys and nightshade and tobacco got their magical clout based on how strongly they alter our perceptions. It might be possible, though, to use petunias instead of nightshade as an offering to Bellona, or to use petunias for the protective qualities nightshades and tobacco share, or for the prosperity/protection/love qualities of tomatoes or the fidelity/curse breaking/love qualities of chili pepper. I think the fidelity and prosperity connections could be particularly strong, given the profusion and constancy of the blooms.
Growing Notes: Petunias do best in full sun, but can handle partial shade, especially in hotter areas. They are very slow to grow from seed. If starting from seed, begin at least 10 to 12 weeks before planting out date. Petunia seed needs light to germinate, so don’t cover the seed. Sprinkle it on top of the soil and pat lightly, for good contact. They also prefer warmer temperatures for germination. Start the seeds on heating pads or on top of your refrigerator. Once the seed has germinated, move them from the warm area and let them grow on in the cooler temperatures.
Although petunias like cool weather, they are not frost tolerant. Wait until all danger of frost is past before planting your petunias outdoors.
When planting, pinch the seedling back to encourage more branching and a fuller plant. How far back to pinch depends on the plant. If it is a short, stocky seeding, just pinch and inch or less. If the seedling has gotten gangly, you can pinch back by half.
Petunias will tolerate a range of soil pH. They don’t like to be dry for long periods, but they also don’t like wet feet.
Maintenance: Older varieties of petunias require diligent deadheading or they will stop blooming. This is not always a pleasant task, since the foliage is sticky and blossoms that have been rained on turn to slimy mush.
Even the newer varieties that say they don’t require deadheading will benefit from a pinching or shearing mid-season. When the branches start to get long and you can see where all the previous flowers were along the stem, it’s time to cut them back and refresh the plant.
Monthly feeding or foliage feeding will give your petunias the energy to stay in bloom. But be judicious with water and make sure the soil is well drained. Too much water will cause the plants to become ‘leggy’, with lots of stem and few flowers.