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 Proven Winners website. Many thanks to PW for images shown here from their photo library.

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
10 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

Darla April 13, 2010, 7:13 am

Breathtaking here!

Eileen April 13, 2010, 10:07 am

I use many of these varieties and love them. It’s nice to meet the man behind all of this beauty!

Thanks, Eileen — I know I never look at a petunia without thinking of Ushio. Debra

keewee April 13, 2010, 10:42 am

Oh my goodness. so many fabulous petunias. especially the one with green edging it’s petals.

I saw it at Pack Trials, and it was even better in person! Debra

MAYBELLINE April 13, 2010, 10:53 am

You noted that they are not annual in zone 9.
Will they thrive in zone 9?
Are seeds available?
I need to do more research. Your article has intrigued me to learn more.

Hi, Maybelline — As I understand it, they are annuals everywhere but Zone 9 because they are frost-tender. Which means they’ll thrive in Zone 9 even through the winter. But you’ll need to cut them back pretty severely to keep them looking nice. Re seeds, I believe the hybrids are sterile.

our friend Ben April 13, 2010, 11:16 am

Great back-story, Debra, thanks!!!

You’re welcome, Ben ;+) Debra

healingmagichands April 13, 2010, 11:19 am

Plant breeders are a special breed of people, I think. The amount of patience and perseverance that is required to produce new strains is positively amazing. I had an iris that made seeds and I grew out the seedlings to see what I had gotten from the “hybridization”, and it took three years before I got to see the flowers, which ultimately are nothing special.

Granted, you get swifter gratification with petunias, but the principle remains the same.

Thanks for those wonderful Calibrachoa, Ushio. I use them myself in my containers, and they are truly a great performer. Nice to have an opportunity to get to know our garden benefactor.

I agree. I don’t know how breeders manage to hang in there, waiting for results that ultimately may be disappointing. Debra

Lisa at Greenbow April 13, 2010, 4:03 pm

I always wondered who came up with this wonderful flower. Now I know. Thanks.

Hi, Lisa — You’re welcome! Debra

Jay Chua April 14, 2010, 3:05 am

Hi Debra,

Thanks for sharing this.

My wife will fall in love with what she see right here 🙂 we’re indeed thinking of what types of flowers to plant for our little yard. Superbell seemed like a perfect match.

Jay Chua

Hi, Jay — I agree, they’re wonderful for a small yard because they grow beautifully in hanging baskets, thereby taking advantage of unused vertical space. Debra

Ushio April 18, 2010, 7:23 pm

Hi Debra,

Many thanks for introducing my history and vatrieties.
Unfortunately Supertunia ‘Bordeaux’ and Supertunia ‘Pretty Much Picasso’ are form other breeder.
Anyway please enjoy Verbena Superbenas, Phlox Intensias, and new introductions ‘Superbells Blackberry’, ‘Golddust ‘ Macardonia, ‘Lucia ‘ Lobelia, ‘Simply Scentsation’ Heliotropium, Rhodanthemum ‘Moondance’ …


Hi, Ushio –Thank you for the correction. It’s wonderful the way the Internet makes such things possible, and for you to read a blog post that I wrote in Southern CA all the way from Japan! Debra

Dee @ Red Dirt Ramblings April 19, 2010, 8:14 am

Fascinating info on where he found the wild petunias and brought these to market. I can attest to the fact that the new petunias are wonderful plants. The bubblegum pink is impossibly hardy and floriferous.~~Dee

Hi, Dee — Good to know that you’ve had success with them in Oklahoma! Debra

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