Mexican Petunia: A Plant Gone Rogue
In other words, it may look good, but it's a bad choice. In fact FLEPPC (Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council) has listed it as a category one invasive plant. This bad actor goes by many names: Ruellia tweediana, Ruellia brittoniana, Ruellia coerulea and Ruellia malacosperma are all names for the same culprit. In case you've forgotten, a Category I invasive plant is found doing some or all of the following:
- altering native plant communities by displacing native species
- changing community structures or ecological functions
- hybridizing with natives
Florida is not the only state that is regretting its existence, either. Mexican petunia has established itself in nine states from South Carolina to Texas, and is marginally hardy through Zone 7. The FLEPPC Database reports presence of Ruellia t. in five different Floridian community types: pine flatwoods, hardwoods, (hamocks, tree islands) freshwater marshes, river banks, springs, and salt marshes. That's a lot of territory! Wildflower expert Carl Terwilliger found entire fields near the town of Clewiston completely overtaken by Ruellia t. over 20 years ago, and has seen it recently right in the Fakahatchee Strand. Further north, please see evidence pictured in link, as it invades Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, and forms a complete monoculture-groundcover under the tress there: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ep415.
And here’s a corker. Elastic energy stored in the seed capsules becomes converted to kinetic energy, or movement when the seams of the two halves of the capsule dry out; and when that happens, POP goes the weasel. I mean the petunia seed. This means seeds can be virtually sprayed out for distances up to ten feet from the mother plant. Add to this the fact that the plant forms dense colonies from horizontal stems both above and below ground...and you have rampant roots shoving the plants in clumps outward with seeds are being sprayed all along the front lines as it proceeds.
Plus mucous. Yes. The lucky little kinetically loaded seeds come pre-packaged with a mucous gel coat that forms when the seed becomes wet. Now it is capable of floating in water, and also will become glued to the soil when it lands there.
You will not be surprised to learn that Mexican petunia is extremely difficult to get rid of. The underground stems are nearly impossible to remove completely, and the seeds persist in the soil for years.
Kariena Veaudry, Executive Director for the Florida Native Plant Society, has noted:
“The largest problem I see about trying to curb the use of Mexican petunia is that people have a reasonable expectation that when they buy a plant, it will do no harm to natural areas. There's no warning label that this plant is a Category 1 Invasive Plant. When everyone finds out that it spreads uncontrollably, is hard to get rid of, and devastates natural areas - they wish they had not planted it.
Cities and counties knowingly or unknowingly spend tax payer dollars planting this non-native, invasive Ruellia in right-of-ways while state level tax dollars are spent to eradicate it from nearby natural areas.
The list of commonly planted invasive species must be publicized more to the general public, and we need to give out special certifications to nurseries that hold up a standard by offering for sale only those plants that are not on the Invasive list."
That sounds like a good idea. Catch Kariena at the Wildflower Symposium this coming weekend in Winter Park, where she will be speaking on Native Wildflowers In Landscape Design. A fantastic opportunity to learn from a pro about native flowers will adapt well to a cultivated setting.
Now that the serious "caution" flag is up, we can tell you that the University of Florida has developed one cultivar, called "Purple Showers," that is sterile, (won't set seeds) and has been found not to be invasive. U of Fl. featured Purple Showers recently in its “Gardening in Minute” series, in both print and radio podcast:
They also mention the native wild petunia, Ruellia caroliniensis. This is truly a blue-flowered beauty, and worth the trip to a native nursery. AFNN.org is a good source for locating native plants you will never regret planting.
In summary, members of the court, we ask you to find for Truth, Justice and Sustainable Ecology
by condemning the invasive Ruellia simplex, britonnia, tweediana et. al. to plant prison for eternity and to pledge to plant native in the future!