Petite Substitutes for Petunias in the Annual Border

I don’t like petunias. There – my prejudices are out in the open. I won’t try to justify my dislike for the ubiquitous petunia, but if you’re looking for an annual flower that will fill in some space in your flower border, and you’re tired of petunias too, here are three of my favorites.

One of my favorite petunia substitutes is Calibrachoa, which is actually a distant relative of the petunia. Calibrachoa, sold as ‘Million Bells’, is a low-growing plant that spreads and trails over baskets and walls, much like a miniature petunia. The flowers are much smaller, though, and the leaves are finer than the petunia. The plants continue to spread and bloom from late spring to frost in a carefree manner that any busy gardener will enjoy.

The Calibrachoa blooming in my garden has continued to look fantastic in spite of several weeks of weather in the upper 90’s. The blossoms self-clean, so no deadheading is needed. Unfortunately, this also means that the Calibrachoa will not set seed, and new plants will need to be purchased each spring since these hybrid plants are patented.

The ‘Million Bells’ we find each spring in the nursery were originally part of an extensive breeding program conducted by a Japanese company called Suntory Ltd, which now holds its patent. The hybrids were bred from a plant found growing naturally in South America in 1988. These plants will grow in any sunny spot where petunias are happy, but will be much shorter. They also look fantastic trailing over the sides of hanging baskets. The plants will eventually fill in a space at least 12″ wide or more, but to fill in garden space more quickly they can be planted as little as 8″ apart.

Calibrachoa are available in shades of blue, pink, red, yellow and white.

Another of my favorite petunia substitutes is Nierembergia. This plant is also distantly related to petunias, and the star-shaped flowers do bare a vague resemblance to diminutive petunias, but the comparison must end there. This plant has fine-textured leaves almost completely hidden by mounds of tiny flowers. Mine were planted from seed this spring and transplanted to a sunny border that receives the hot western sun. Many other plants growing nearby have drooped in the heat, but the Nierembergia has been completely unaffected, and continues to bloom and spread.

Nierembergia is available in white, light lavender and blue-violet. I planted seeds of the Nierembergia variety “Blue Mountain” that is available from Park Seed Co. Seeds of the “White Robe” and “Purple Robe” varieties are available from Stokes Seeds.

My last suggestion for a petunia substitute is the old garden favorite, Portulaca, or moss rose. This plant is also originally from South America, but is not related to petunias at all. This member of the purslane family can grow in poor soil and hot sun, as long as it receives an occasional drink of water. Like Nierembergia, the moss rose can easily be started from seed. These plants do not do well in shady areas, but will survive in parts of your garden that are too hot for other plants to do well. Older varieties tend to open their flowers for only a portion of each day, so choose a more recent hybrid, and plant the seeds 6 to 8 weeks before the last expected frost. Portulaca is available in orange, rose, yellow and white – all colors that would contrast beautifully if interplanted with one of the other petunia substitutes listed in this article.