Historic Southside Master Naturalists: Wild petunia

Published 6:42 pm Tuesday, August 3, 2021

By Brenda Peters

The flowerbed along my front porch is looking beautiful. Its edges are outlined by the variegated liriope from my mother’s yard. The bed is filled with common milkweed, butterfly weed and swamp milkweed to help sustain the monarch butterfly. Interspersed among them is a native plant commonly referred to as wild petunia.

Wild petunia, Ruellia, is a member of the Acanthus family (Acanthaceae). It is totally unrelated to the annual petunia seen in most gardens, which is a member of the Nightshade family (Solanaceae). Wild petunia is a drought-tolerant native perennial with lavender to purple petunia-like flowers that bloom from spring to fall. Each blossom lasts only a day or two, but new flowers quickly form. Although it prefers a sunny location, it can tolerate partial shade. It will grow in dry to moist conditions in well-drained soil.

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This plant grows no more than two feet and dies back in the winter. It easily spreads by seed, but is not considered aggressive. I typically thin out any unwanted seedlings in the spring and cut back the dead stalks in the fall. It grows upright, and its leaves and stems are fuzzy with fine hairs. The foliage will gracefully sprawl, helping to fill in the gaps between taller plants.

Wild petunia is deer and disease resistant. Its trumpet-like flowers attract hummingbirds and long-tongued butterflies and bees. It is a larval host plant for the common buckeye butterfly, whose caterpillars eat the leaves while the adults feed on the flower nectar.

The lovely color of wild petunias compliments the bright orange flowers of the butterfly weed in my front porch flower bed. Its graceful foliage works well against the tall stalks of the common and swamp milkweed plants. Wild petunia is a wonderful addition to my pollinator-friendly garden. I hope you will consider adding it to yours.