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There's drama, mystery and intrigue in the world of petunias.

Seductive black blossoms and charming pinstripes have created plenty of excitement among gardeners, especially ones like my friend MJ, who loves to be the first one to try something unique or different. She's got an eagle eye for great-looking plants, and two of her fave-raves are "Phantom" and "Black Velvet." Another new petunia, "Pinstripe," will give you a fresh perspective on the versatility of petunias.

"Pinstripe" is a bicolor petunia with velvety, deep purple-black blooms with a delicate center star in creamy white that makes the flower look like it's wearing pinstripes.

Basic black is always in fashion and goes with everything, even gardens. It's the hottest color trend in petunias. "Phantom" offers a black base color and a striking yellow star pattern and "Black Velvet" has fragrant, deep, dark blooms that look black, but actually are the deepest, darkest purple I've ever seen. It was developed through natural breeding rather than scientific contortions.

Combine it with "Phantom" or other yellow, chartreuse, white or apricot blooming or silver-foliaged plants.

Historically, black isn't new for petunias. "Black-throated Superbissima," a deeply veined, dark crimson-purple petunia with a black throat, appeared in the 1888 Burpee's catalog.

"Rhythm and Blues" is another must-have petunia with its purple-blue flowers edged in white. This one is a mounding, trailing petunia with abundant flowers.

Traditionalists will appreciate not having been forgotten in the mix. "Ramblin' Sugar Plum" is your classic jewel-toned petunia. Plants are mounding or trailing, great for pots and hanging baskets.

For gardeners who love those gorgeous pale colors, "Limbo Salmon Morn" and "Limbo Pink Morn" should have a starring role at the front of the border. These two are described as natural dwarf petunias which are compact and easy to grow. They won't get leggy, either.

Abundant blooms and a low, spreading habit come with "Opera Supreme Raspberry Ice" F1, a new petunia that blooms from the center of the plant out to the tips. Plants have short nodes for closely spaced blooms and one plant can spread 3.5 to 4 feet.

Any of these petunias will add drama to your garden borders and containers.

Petunias belong to the Solanaceae or nightshade family, along with tomatoes, peppers and nicotiana. They perform best in at least 6 hours of sunlight daily, but will do OK in light shade, blooming less on plants that stretch. Soil should be well-drained, light and rich, amended with compost or peat moss before planting. Water regularly, especially pots, window boxes and hanging baskets which dry out quickly.

Mulch petunias in the bed and feed with a slow-release fertilizer once a month. Plant large masses in the garden for impact.

Typecasting petunias

Multiflora: Withstands hot, wet spells, flowers freely. Use singles for mass plantings; doubles look great in containers and window boxes.

Grandiflora: The most popular petunia; available as a single or double and perfect for mass plantings or pots with 3 to 4 inch blooms; beautiful colors in solids, bicolors and picotee (edged). Stretches in high heat, although new cultivars are more compact and rain- and disease-tolerant.

Spreading: Low-growing, spreading plants used as a flowering ground cover in full sun, as well as trailing in hanging baskets. Flowers form along the entire length of each stem and are produced prolifically all season without the stems being trimmed back.

Floribunda: Available in single- and double-flowered hybrids, basically an improved multiflora with larger flowers; weather tolerant; ideal for mass plantings and for container plantings.

Milliflora: Name coined in 1996 to accommodate hybrids that are about two-thirds the size of a normal petunia; abundant flowers, early bloomer; well-suited to container culture.

Additional source: National Garden Bureau.

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As the saying goes, "error is a hardy plant; it flourishes in every soil."

In last week's column I identified Erwin Jaeger as "Irving Yeager." I got so wrapped up in our conversation about Siberian squill that I didn't double check the spelling of his name when we spoke. We ran a correction in Monday's Courier and I also called him personally to apologize. I appreciate his understanding and his sense of humor.

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