In early 1998, Nacogdoches city leaders learned that Laura Bush, first lady of Texas at that time, planned to visit the city to view the newly renovated town square. A Stephen F. Austin State University official asked Dr. David Creech, director of SFA Gardens, if there was any unnamed plant that could be named after her. Creech contacted Greg Grant, at that time an instructor and part-time plant developer, who explained that he didn’t have a whole greenhouse full of unnamed plants waiting to be named. It was far from that simple. After discussing with his mentor and plant developer Dr. Jerry Parsons with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service in San Antonio, it was decided that a petunia Greg and Jerry had been working on and calling “Jr. Petunia” would be used.
Creation of a new plant cultivar doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a complex and time-consuming process. The process commonly known as “selection” normally requires these steps:
• Seeds or tissues from plants with promising and desired characteristics are collected.
• They are planted and propagated in a nursery to confirm the desired traits.
• Pollen is collected and the different plants are cross pollinated.
• Recurrent selection of newly propagated plants occurs following the desired traits in multiple generations of harvesting the seeds, replanting and reselecting to evolve a plant in which the desired traits are common.
Grant, a Texas-born renowned horticulturist, plant inventor, writer, lecturer and storyteller, had a passion for old-fashioned, heirloom plants and an obsession for developing plants that could survive on their own in the demanding Texas environment. Grant had discovered a tough little “V.I.P.” (Very Important Petunia) at a horticulture exposition in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1993. At the time he was director of product development for Lone Star Growers. He brought back three seeds from the V.I.P. to Texas. One seedling was germinated from the V.I.P. and grown to a plant.
In 1994 the V.I.P. was planted in a test field next to a white old-fashioned petunia provided by Dr. William C. Welch, another of Grant’s Texas A&M AgriLife mentors and "Southern Heirloom Garden" co-author. Thanks to mother nature, pollen from the old-fashioned petunia found its way into the V.I.P. petunia. Seeds were harvested from the V.I.P. mother, and seedling offspring were germinated, combining the genetic traits of the old-fashioned petunia papa and the “V.I.P” mama plants. The new hybrids were planted in the San Antonio Botanical Garden.
On a hot day in June 1996, 20 selections of the plants were collected by Grant and propagated from cuttings. The rooted cuttings were transplanted to the Verstuyfts vegetable farm in Von Ormy. Earlier generations of Verstuyfts had been flower growers in Belgium. By July more than half the plants had been eliminated by the summer heat and a frigid January norther finished off the rest — except for three plants. Parsons collected seeds from the three survivors, propagated, replanted and subjected them to continued field torture and reselection.
By the spring of 1998, little multiflora “Jr. Petunia” with the large and plentiful glowing violet blooms — super hearty enough to withstand the harsh Texas environment — was ready for its debut. The newly named Laura Bush petunia, by this time five years in the making, would be the showcase for the recently renovated Nacogdoches town square and the name sake for the Texas first lady.
Interestingly enough, Creech, a self-proclaimed “yellow dog Democrat,” presented the petunia to Laura Bush on the downtown square on her visit to Nacogdoches.
Grant has introduced more than 50 plants: roses, phloxes, salvias, verbenas, gardenias, petunias and others. In his own style he names his newly developed plants for friends, colleagues, grandparents, beloved dogs and names on cemetery headstones. So why not name an old-fashioned, true-from-seed, fragrant violet bloomer after one of the most respected first ladies of our time?
The Laura Bush petunia was immediately submitted to extensive field testing in four regions of the state by the Texas A&M Agrilife Research center. By the end of 2001 it was certified as a Texas Superstar, which means it will show superior performance under Texas tough growing conditions in the Earth-Kind landscape.
It is reported that the Laura Bush petunia flourished at the White House in Washington, D.C., and in gardens at Camp David, Maryland, which would indicate that it also can be strong in cooler, more humid climates. Parsons subsequently selected a pink variety. Both are available from Wildseed Farms (www.wildseedfarms.com) in Fredericksburg.
Laura Bush petunia is an exceptionally popular, fragrant, reseeding petunia that is more heat, cold and pest resistant than most other modern hybrids. It is an excellent plant for East Texas gardeners. Plant Laura Bush petunias and celebrate a bit of Texas horticulture history.
The Smith County Master Gardener program is a volunteer organization in connection with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.