Ushio’s Petunias

– Posted in: Garden Adventures

As we sat beneath shade cloth on a warm spring day in Bonsall, CA, Ushio Sakazaki told me how he became the world’s premier breeder of petunias. The occasion was Pack Trials, and I was there to cover the event for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Milling about us were nursery owners and buyers for garden centers nationwide. They had come to see more than 500 plant varieties introduced by Euro-American Propagators over the past 15 years, as well as dazzling new cultivars.

In this setting, Ushio was a celebrity. Surrounding him, cascading from pots and hanging baskets, were his progeny: brilliant-hued, fluffy, full-flowered Supertunias…

…and Calibrachoa (a petunia cousin commonly called Superbells) distributed worldwide under the Proven Winners label.

Superbells aren’t sticky like petunias, stay compact and bushy even when stressed, and are covered with hundreds of flowers from early spring through the first light frost. The vigorous, heat-tolerant plants grow to 6 – 10 inches tall and have long, trailing branches.

‘Superbells Plum’

“Back in1984 I worked for the wine division of Suntory Company, growing grapes in the Brazilian rainforest,” Ushio told me. “It was the cheapest white wine in the world, but the quality was poor, so the project stopped. But while in Brazil, I saw a wild species of petunia with thousands of flowers on one plant, like a carpet. I realized there was no similar variety on the market and brought seed back to Japan.”

Surfinia, blue-veined

In 1986, at a breeding facility that specialized in roses, Ushio applied state-of-the-art gene technology to petunias. Crosses between domestic and wild Brazilian petunias resulted in a new plant: Surfinia. Its success in Japan, and then in Europe and America, enabled him to start his own plant breeding company and research facility.

Supertunia ‘Vista Bubblegum’

Rick Schoellhorn, director of new products for Proven Winners, says the secret of Ushio’s success is “to blend wild species and hybrid types into new colors and forms.  He wants people to connect with plants the way he does—with fragrance, with color, and most of all, with performance.”

Calibrachoa ‘Superbells Red’

Supertunia ‘Bordeaux’

Schoellhorn visited Ushio in Japan. “It’s amazing what he is working on, not only mainstream crops, but also his experiments with plants that many of us have never heard of.”  New for 2010 is the ‘Pretty Much Picasso’ Supertunia, which has a distinct green edge.

According to a recent press release from Proven Winners, “Supertunia ‘Pretty Much Picasso’ won the Innovation Award at IPM Essen in Germany. This is one of the most prestigious awards given out in the floriculture industry. This variety has also won 13 awards from university trials across the country as top pick, visitor favorite and more.”

Calibrachoa ‘Superbells Peach’

Superbells are annuals except in zones 9 – 11. No deadheading nor pinching back is needed. Water only when top of soil feels dry. Give full sun and fertilize once a month during the growing season.

For more info on the care and cultivation of Supertunias and Superbells, as well as additional photos of Ushio’s lovely hybrids, check out the website. Many thanks to PW for images shown here from their photo library.

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Debra Lee Baldwin

Award-winning garden photojournalist Debra Lee Baldwin authored Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardens, and Succulents Simplified, all Timber Press bestsellers. Her goal is to enhance others' enjoyment and awareness of waterwise plants and gardens by showcasing the beauty and design potential of succulents via books, articles, newsletters, photos, videos, social media and more. Debra and husband Jeff live in the foothills north of San Diego. She grew up in Southern California on an avocado ranch, speaks conversational Spanish, and at age 18 graduated magna cum laude from USIU with a degree in English Literature. Her hobbies include thrifting, birding and watercolor painting. Debra's YouTube channel has had over 3,000,000 views.
Debra Lee Baldwin
Debra Lee Baldwin
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