Thursday, July 9, 2009

Calibrachoa by Gardener Dave

In the last 2-3 years I have been looking for a “petunia substitute” that would require less maintenance (esp. deadheading) than the ubiquitous petunia. I like petunias for their mass color effect and their fragrance, but I don’t like having to continually trim off spent blooms, and I don’t appreciate their somewhat sticky nature.

Ergo, I have been replacing petunias with Calibrachoa (a.k.a. “Callies”, “Million Bells”, “mini petunia”, etc.) both for bedding and use in pots on my deck. Their blooms are smaller than those of most petunias, but they come in many colors and are “self-cleaning”, so no deadheading! I will share my Calibrachoa experiences here with you and would welcome your own experiences and advice as well. They are still somewhat pricey and not as universally available as petunias, so extra care may be warranted to avoid having to replace/replant them if they don’t make it in your garden for one reason or another.

Firstly: some of the cultural advice I have read claims they are drought resistant. My experience tells me that here they need good well-drained soil and constant moisture, but avoid constantly wet soil. Curiously, if their little leaves begin to curl and wilt, the flowers may stay open and still be vividly colored, but the plant will not recover. Secondly: their stems are rather woody and thin and subject to breakage from handling and wind. I mulch them with shredded cedar bark and try to immobilize the longer stems to prevent wind whipping. Thirdly: they are much adored by slugs, so keep the slug bait handy! Some cultivars are more vigorous than others, some more creeping, some more wiry and bushy. Many are sold in hanging basket arrangements.

Other than those few concerns, I still like the “little fellers” for their generous sun-loving blooms from planting time to after light frosts in the fall, and for their clear bright colors and “enthusiasm” when you treat them right. Give them a shot of fertilizer now and then as you would petunias, and they don’t ask for much else (except no hail please!).

Curiosity overcame me, so I searched the net to see if I could find where their hard-to-remember and hard-to-spell name “Calibrachoa” came from. According to Marsh Botanic Gardens at Yale University, some botanists include them in the petunia’s genus, Solanaceae, and others separate them into their own Calibrachoa genus, named for an 19th century Mexican botanist and pharmacologist, “Antonio de Cali Bracho”.
The more modern version called “Million Bells” was developed by the large Japanese corporation, Suntory (Yes, they also make whiskey) Interesting!

More info on them, including care and even their propagation, can be found at the following site:

Gardener Dave