By Jan Pipher, Freelance Writer
Whether you are a petunia lover or not, the arrival of the Laura Bush petunia is exciting news for all Texas flower gardeners. As everyone knows, bedding petunias are great cool-season bloomers but seldom make it through the summer heat, so they must be replaced with summer annuals – meaning more work and expense. Some of you are acquainted with what we call the old-fashioned reseeding petunia, which is one of the parents of these brighter colored spring nursery offerings. Old-fashioned petunias come in softer colors, have a deep, heady petunia scent and endure the hardships of the Texas climate by putting out lots of seed and sprouting again when the weather is more agreeable. You may even know about the VIP petunia (Petunia violacea), a heat-tolerant, smaller-flowered native of South America, introduced in Texas in the last ten years, which is another parent of the modern bedding petunia. The new Laura Bush petunia is also an offspring of these two parent petunias, but bred to suit the Texas climate, tolerant of heat as well as cold, with plenty of bright color yet retaining the lovely, old-fashioned petunia scent.
The Laura Bush petunia story began eight years ago when Greg Grant, horticulturist for the San Antonio Botanical Gardens and contributing editor to TEXAS GARDENER, brought back some VIP seed from a horticulture exposition in Stuttgart, Germany. Starting with the sprouted VIPs, Grant teamed up with Dr. Jerry Parsons, Texas Cooperative Extension specialist, in hopes of coming up with a Texas-hardy petunia. Beginning with just 30 plants from a VIP/old-fashioned petunia cross sprouted at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens, cuttings were rooted and propagated, and later, field planted in the heat of July with the help of Bexar County Master Gardeners. In a true endurance test, summer temperatures finished off 60 per cent of the transplants and a 22-degree January norther froze the rest – except for three selections! From these remaining survivors, seed was collected, replanted and subjected to further vicissitudes of Texas climate, under the watchful expertise of Dr. Parsons.
So how did Laura Bush come by its famous name? One day, officials at Stephen F. Austin University, Nacogdoches, received word that Mrs. George W. Bush, then Texas’ first lady, would be visiting their city to view the new town square renovation. As plans began formulating for the occasion six weeks hence, someone came up with the idea that they could honor Mrs. Bush and also display the expertise of the Stephan F. Austin Horticulture Department by naming a flower after her and planting it in the square for her arrival! The process of developing a new plant does not happen in 6 weeks but tough little petunia “X” had passed her tests in San Antonio and was now ready for a name. So, Laura Bush bloomed in the town square for her namesake. Mrs. Bush was pleased and wrote a note to Dr. Parsons thanking him for naming the plant after her; and the horticulture department did, indeed, look pretty savvy.
Like both its parent petunias, Laura Bush is spreading in form, making a mounding rather than compact plant and is well suited for container planting. The blooms are slightly smaller (approximately 2 to 3 inches) than those of the standard bedding petunia but because of its adaptability, Laura Bush will produce more bloom overall. Laura Bush can handily take full sun but also does well in light shade; just make sure your planting site has at least 7 hours of sunlight – less light means less bloom and ganglier plants. In the wetter times of the year, watch for slugs and snails, who love to feast on all petunias’ tender foliage. Keep in mind that overhead watering can spread fungus and spoil blooms; therefore, hand watering or drip irrigation and plenty of mulch work best for Laura Bush. A slow-release fertilizer (at 1 pound to 100 square feet) or bi-monthly applications of fertilizer and well-composted soil will ensure maximum bloom spring through fall.
Regular trimming (by one third) every 6 to 8 weeks is one of the most ignored management tips – no one ever wants to cut off blooms, and few people want to be out cutting off anything during the summer months but Laura Bush will definitely benefit from periodic trimming. Try to do it at least once going into the summer and again about mid-August for increased fall bloom. Your reward will be nicer looking plants and the uncommon treat of petunias scenting your summer evenings.
In addition to being able to take the heat here in the South, the Laura Bush petunia did very well in Eastern Seaboard humidity last summer where “she” flourished at the White House in Washington, D.C. and at Camp David, Maryland. Laura Bush has yet to be tried in colder climate zones but should do well as far north as any common bedding petunia will grow. Who knows, maybe this Texas petunia will be growing in Anchorage, Alaska in the next few years!
Since the first marketing of Laura Bush, Dr. Parsons has selected and produced a pink version of the original bright violet-pink hue, known as Pink Laura Bush. Dr. Larry Stein, another Extension horticulturist, has added further to the color scale with a glowing Purple Laura Bush.
For those of you who like to “grow your own,” the original Laura Bush is a true-from-seed petunia and is listed in this year’s 2002 Wildseed Farms catalog. In the past, seed from the old-fashioned reseeding petunias have seldom been offered for sale and the hybrid, bedding-type petunias are propagated by cuttings and sold as transplants. Now, with the arrival of Laura Bush and the work of Mr. John Thomas at Wildseed, who developed the method for growing, harvesting and cleaning the tiny seeds, petunia seeds are available to the general gardening public for virtually the first time.