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The Story of the Petunia

Petunias from South America first arrived in France in 1823.

The botanist Antoine de Jussieu called it Petunia nyctaginiflora, presently P. axillaris.

By the mid-1840s double petunias appeared. According to Peggy Cornett Newcomb’s book Popular Annuals, they “created a sensation instantly.”

But that surge in interest was not to last too long.

In 1866, Boston seed company owner Joseph Breck said, “The double petunias were once the rage, but new, fine improved single varieties are considered superior.”

Vick Tries his Luck at Hybridizing

In the 1870s Rochester, N.Y. seed company owner James Vick (1814-1882) tried his skill at hybridizing petunias. He did find a double that he put on the market.

Here are two illustrations from his magazine [below].

Hybridizing petunias at Vick’s Flower Farm (1879)
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Hybridizing: Vick’s Monthly Magazine, 1879

Newcomb writes that “By 1875, petunias were divided into three classes: double forms, grandiflora forms, including fringed types; and small flowered, floriferous forms.”

Over time Vick gave the gardener beautiful petunias like these in his magazine. [below]

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Vick’s Illustrated Monthly 1879

Vick’s Seed Company Later

In 1936 the Vick Seed Company, then owned by Burpee but managed by Vick’s sons, moved to Philadelphia.

The catalog for that year called Vick’s “America’s Oldest Mail Seed Company.”

It included a little garden history in these words:

“Though Petunias have been in cultivation only a little more than a century, plant breeders have developed all types, all sizes and colors from the small white and purple-flowering varieties that were native to South America.”

In its pages the catalog included 39 varieties of petunias. It was indeed still a popular annual.

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