The common garden petunia (Petunia x hybrida) often shows up on lists of plants recommended for hummingbirds. Hummers will visit hybrid petunias, especially if there is nothing better in the neighborhood, but if you plant them your hummers may be left wishing that you’d plant a better nectar-producer. If you rely too heavily on plants that don’t produce a lot of nectar, you may lose hummer visits to neighbors who maintain feeders or plant beds full of better hummingbird plants. The parents of the hybrid petunia are Petunia axillaris (with fragrant white flowers pollinated by hawkmoths) and P. integrifolia (purple flowers pollinated by bees). Neither hawkmoth nor bee flowers generally produce great volumes of nectar, so it is no surprise that the hybrid petunias don’t produce much nectar either, especially since nectar production is not a trait selected for by Petunia breeders.
Though hybrid petunias aren’t great hummer plants, petunia-lovers need not despair! There is one Petunia species that is hummingbird-pollinated in the wild. Petunia exserta, not described in the botanical literature until 1987, is a very rare Petunia native to a small region in Brazil. Red flowers, exserted stamens (clearly visible in the close-up picture at the top of this post) and presumably greater nectar-production distinguish this species from other Petunias. Ever since I read about this rare Petunia, I’ve been lusting after it but hadn’t ever been able to find a source for it–until this year! Annie’s Annuals has it available at their nursery in Richmond, CA and through their mail-order catalog. They grew their plants from seed provided by Joseph Tychonievich, a graduate student in horticulture at Michigan State University and proprietor of the blog Greensparrow Gardens.
I obtained a few plants late this last summer from Annie’s Annuals and put a few into the ground and one into a pot. I’ve been collecting a lot of seed so next year I’ll be able to grow enough plants to give Petunia exserta a thorough test in my garden. I’ve been very happy with it during my limited trial this year, and have witnessed hummingbirds systematically visiting the blooms. The plants were already blooming when I unpacked the mail-order boxes from Annie’s Annuals in August. When the weather started cooling down in late summer they really started exploding into bloom. I will try it next year in pots and as a front-of-the border plant in my beds.
A very well-written & informative article!
I’ve been growing trial hummingbird plants the past 10 years or so, and am interested in trying Petunia exserta. Would you know where I could acquire some seeds? I don’t need many for a trial, and I’m willing to buy them, send a SASE, etc. This will be my ONLY Petunia grown in 2012, and I’ll be willing to share the seeds with my supplier if successful.
Thanks for the comment, Tom. I am not aware of any source for seed for Petunia exserta as of now. I purchased a few plants from Annie’s Annuals last summer, and collected some seed from those plants to start some more plants for my 2012 garden. I think Annie’s Annuals has plants available now if you are interested in purchasing plants mail-order. I’m afraid I’ve distributed all extra seed I had from that initial collection. I’d certainly be willing to send you some seed next summer after I’ve had a chance to collect additional seed–if you haven’t found a source by then feel free to contact me again and I’ll send some to you.
I only see a male periodically in my garden this year but nearly every time I have seen him, he has been perusing the Petunia exsertas before coming to the feeder. This has been a super no brainer plant to grow and seems to be more floriiferous if kept in a container until its root bound and then transplanted into the garden. These plants do get bigger and fuller than the common hybrids sold in garden centers. One plant will easily fill up and 8-10 inch container
Penny: Your sightings give me hope! I’ve not seen much hummer use so far this season despite the fact they’ve been blooming very well. However, the bed where they are planted is not easily viewable from the house, and I haven’t had the patience to keep an eye on the patch outside–mosquitoes are a major nuisance now! I’ll be posting a Petunia exserta update soon.
I work for a botanical garden in Virginia and one of my responsibilities is the care, maintenance and design of our Hummingbird Garden. I would love to have Petunia exserta in our collection and would like to start this plant from seed, as this is the preferred method by our plant propagator. Does anyone have any seed they would be willing to send/sell? I can send a self addressed stamped envelope or buy seeds if someone knows of a source. I would prefer not to buy a plant and have it ship across the country if possible.
I’ll be collecting seed within a month or so and will be happy to send some to you; no SASE necessary.
I would love to have some of the seed if you have any to spare. Let me know and I’ll be happy to send a SASE to make it easy for you.
Ditto to you, Robert. Send me your address and I’ll send out some seed in a month or so.
Are you going to keep growing this? I did get lots of flowers in the end but really I only saw one hummer investigate the plants. I am thinking to try something else.
We’ve been selling P. exserta since 2014 at our plant sale —- reports are that hummingbirds here in Minnesota prefer other flowers.
It has been a few years now, how has /Petunia exserta/ worked out with the hummingbirds and as a garden plant?
Nancy and Henry:
I tried P. exserta for two years in my old garden and had disappointing results, as did most people on the hummingbird forum who tried it in their gardens. I did witness hummingbird use, but not as much as I had hoped or expected. After years of not growing it, I am going to try it one more time this year or next. I plan to plant out a large patch of it this time to get a better idea of its value. Sometimes even good hummingbird plants don’t get visited much if you have only one or a few in your garden, especially if you have larger patches of other good nectar producers blooming at the same time.
Thanks, Don, and let me know if you’d like us to save you several plants or even a whole flat of 18.