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.