The Mysterious Case of the Orange Petunia

Outlawed orange-red petunia


If you’re growing an orange petunia this summer, you may be one of the lucky ones. Or the afflicted ones.

Orangish petunias were taken off the market several weeks ago, in Europe, when a Finnish watchdog agency, Evira, announced they had discovered that the summer flowering annual had been genetically modified.


The USDA got on the bandwagon shortly afterwards.

(Elizabeth Licata reported the petunia irregularity, here on Garden Rant, on May 16th.)

Any genetically engineered (GE) or genetically modified organism (GMO)—food product or ornamental plant—is routinely forbidden in Europe, although exceptions have been allowed after thorough scrutiny proved there was no potential danger

Petunias have no natural orange gene. Now breeders are backpedaling, arguing that there was no mechanical gene splicing to produce the orange petunia.

One head-scratcher is the suggestion that the genetic transfer was windborne. The seed companies are claiming there has been no skullduggery. No gene guns were fired. Therefore, corn pollen, possibly possessing orange flowering genetics, got mixed with the petunia’s natural genetics—naturally.

Say what?

Corn, Zea mays, is in the grass family. Petunias are in the deadly nightshade, Solanaceae, family. Such a gene transfer seems far-fetched. But if Monsanto can splice the corn earworm thwarting bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, into corn, then maybe a Sassafras can be bred to a pot-bellied pig.

Another question: If multiple seed companies are each holding different orange flowering petunia seed strains, did they all initially imagine the concept of a miracle outcome (orange flowering petunia) within a few years of one another?

What are the odds of that?

To produce an orange petunia would require expensively harvesting the orange gene and employing a gene gun for the gene transfer.

Or multiple companies were all downwind at the same time.

The gene transfer, by either gene gunfire or wind, would be the breeder’s starting point. The remaining effort would require a rudimentary understanding of Gregor Mendel’s bean breeding work—not to mention considerable patience.

It seems more far more likely that one breeder came up with the brainstorm for orange flowering genetic transfer. So, then, how would it be possible for so many breeders to come into possession of their own initial orange-flowering seed stock at roughly the same time?

This is an ongoing whodunit. The five-fingered discount (aka shoplifting) seems another possibility.

Could seeds have been stolen from an industry seed trial, for instance, where many breeders submit their prospective seed strains for independent judging?

Seeds walk away.

Common thievery is nothing new in the seed business.

Even if petunia seeds were stolen—and I have no evidence that they were— it can take up to ten years or longer from the initial crossing between pollen and mother plants. It’s an expensive, long-term undertaking to bring breeding product to market.

But, in this case, something is going on. I’m not sure what? It’s not time to call in the Special Prosecutor, but I imagine the breeding companies, involved with the orange petunias, wish this would all go away. Plants and seeds have been recalled.

Or maybe this fuss is all being blown out of proportion.

How threatened should we feel of the outlawed orange petunia?



Allen Bush is the Director of Special Projects for Jelitto Perennial Seeds.




    • Are you suggesting the current White House resident could be some type of vegetable-primate hybrid? Perhaps even a distant cousin to this orange petunia?

  1. Actually, the orange petunia originated in a research lab in Germany in the mid-1980s, when genetic research was still exciting and interesting and not a moral dilemma. Scientists knew that the corn gene would bring the orange color into petunia. Now, how and when that first orange petunia went from the lab to the commercial breeding program isn’t clear (it didn’t escape and walk, if that’s what GMO opponents want you to believe), but it most likely happened honestly and innocently. Interestingly, we are today so far away from that first GE petunia that breeders had no idea their breeding stock contained traces of the “blood” from that first cross way back when. Lastly, the reason there is a recall is not because USDA thinks the plants pose any threat; it’s because they were not “deregulated” and hence are illegal to sell.

    Oh, that’s a calibrachoa in the photo at the top, not a petunia. No corn gene in calibrachoa, as far as we know.

    • Chris, thanks for more background. I know you’ve been covering this closely. Thanks for that. Thanks, also, for pointing out the lead photo was a callibrachoa, not a petunia. (I’m a perennial guy and obviously weak on annuals. I’ve made the switch with my own crappy photo of one of the suspect orangish petunias.) I knew the orange petunia originated in a German research lab. It’s fascinating that you can transfer an orange gene from corn into a petunia. I’m not an outright opponent of all GMOs, but I still wonder how so many breeders obtained stock of the original work. Or, if not, was there only one breeder who got the first goods? If only one breeder got the first outcome from the research, how did the other breeders get theirs?

  2. Since I don’t plan on eating a petunia, I’m not really concerned about how it became orange. However, my real issue is with all the ‘fiddling’ with creating new varieties of plants, what will happen to the tried-and-true plants and animals. And if something should go wrong, will we be able to sustain ourselves on these ‘lab rats’?

  3. While I prefer the orange president/orange petunia conspiracy, the truth is pretty interesting, too. No wonder Germany is becoming the leader of the Free World. And the orange petunias would look really nice with my purple petunias :).

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