I will always be grateful to petunias for getting me back to a pursuit I had followed as a child: gardening. I’m grateful as well to a friend and former teaching colleague who in the mid-’80s gave me the six-pack of petunia seedlings in the first place. “Like kids, they grow,” she pointed out. “Unlike kids, they don’t answer back.” I think she must have given them me on a bad day. Anyway, I remember planting them in a largish pot and waiting with some anticipation for the flowers to appear. Slowly, all the buds unfolded into rich shades of deep violet to deeper purple. My friend was disappointed; she had promised me a mix of colours. “I hoped at least one of them would be pink and white striped and another white and frilly,” she said. But who wants candy cane when you can have royal velvet?
For many weeks I feasted my eyes on the flowers, enjoying, too, their lustrously soft texture. They made me realise the importance of taking time to appreciate the world of flowers, even when the pressures of work seem overwhelming. Eventually I became inspired to fill numerous planters with other annuals though the purple petunias were always my favourite. Much later I learned more about them in a book I treasure, 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names by Diana Wells. I discovered from it their name derives from a Brazilian word, petun, meaning tobacco, and that small purple petunias (Petunia violacea), growing wild all over South America, were brought to the Glasgow botanical gardens by James Tweedie, formerly head gardener at the Royal Botanical Garden in Edinburgh. Soon they were growing all over the UK and in 1834 were dubbed “the most splendid ornaments of the flower garden.”
Eventually, it was discovered petunias could be crossed with their relatives, the nicotanias, and it was American botanist Luther Burbank who developed a hybrid “nicotunia” plant. Today, Wells says, all our modern hybrids, including the striped and frilly ones, are descended from the Petunia violacea variety and one other, Petunia allixaris. But if we let them reseed, they would quickly revert to the small wild purple petunias Tweedie saw on his South American travels. I must say, I like the idea of that though plant nurseries would never agree with me.
Last year, I found myself in the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco gazing at Georgia O’Keeffe’s beautifully purple Petunias. Their wine dark shades transported me back to our patio in Bermuda, letting me relive the pleasure I felt all those years before. I thought how odd that was, given O’Keeffe had painted them in 1925, long before I was born, and given what she said about them: “Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time—like to have a friend takes time…” Thanks to my friend, I took the time to plant and enjoy them, in 1986, the year of O’Keeffe’s death. In 1924, O’Keeffe apparently had deliberately planted lots of purple petunias on her husband’s farm to study their colours and the painting here in San Francisco was one result of her preoccupation.
She also said, “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.”
Tempted by the Museums’ gift shop, I bought a box of notecards depicting O’Keeffe’s petunias, thinking I could literally pass her wish along when sending her cards to friends. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of looking up the meaning of petunias in flower language. Petunias can, say florists, have unfortunate connotations since they can symbolise anger or resentment, especially if sent to someone with whom you have had a disagreement. Why that is so, I have no idea. But maybe it influenced JK Rowling when she created Petunia Dursley, Harry Potter’s horrible aunt. I looked at another source about symbolism and feel relieved. Give a petunia to a loved one and it can mean the recipient’s presence is soothing. Still, I’m not sure O’Keeffe’s flowers are soothing though they are definitely beguiling. And they have definitely inspired me, now spring is round the corner, to grow petunias once again. Of course, all of them will be purple.