Petunia is the new black. Adored by designers and admired by breeders, Petunia Black Velvet is the new darling in a trend towards black-flowered plants. The cultivar dazzled last season's garden shows, and will be darkening this year's gardens. "We're always trying to push the boundaries," says Stuart Lowen, marketing manager of Ball Horticulture, who developed Petunia Black Velvet (Petunia x hybrida). "The public always want something that's a novelty. Black is the holy grail for plant breeders. Everyone wants black plants."
Black flowers and leaves have been in vogue for several years, perhaps a nod to garden design's contemporary minimalist styles. In plant morphology, however, black is a misnomer. Among the color pigments produced by flowers and fruits, black is absent. Black flowers are actually deep shades of red or purple, in the case of the Black Velvet petunia. Dark hues are created by crossing varieties with high levels of anthocyanins—the pigments that reveal as red, purple, and blue. Flower breeder Jianping Ren spent four years developing the black petunia. "The black colour did not exist in petunias before, so it has to come from the right recombination of a novel color mutant and multiple regular color genetic backgrounds," she said. Thus the dramatic new flowers are the result of patience, experimentation, and pollenation, rather than any genetic modification. “Lots of old fashioned hard work in the greenhouse. That’s what it took,” says Ping.
Petunia Black Velvet's catchline is "black goes with anything," and, when compares with its dark-flowered compatriots—the Viola Bowles Black pansy or Althea nigra hollyhock—it is considered the blackest flower of them all, a superlative title afforded by the petunia's naturally velvety texture.
When the elegant petunia was launched at last year's California Spring Trials (an event roughly analogous to Fashion Week in hype and status), news traveled fast: across the United States, and across the pond. This month, after a year of field trials in the U.K. to ensure climate toleration, the black petunia was introduced to U.K. plant catalogs and garden centers. Even so, petunias originate in South America and would bow to a harsh winter, so these should be treated as annuals.