The bright colors of petunias are a delight in summer gardens and hanging baskets.
To wildlife, critters, and insects, they’re a tasty delicacy to explore.
A number of insects and animals can do a proper number on your petunias.
The occasional animal wandering in to lend a hand with deadheading can encourage new blooms, but if they hang around too long, you’ll never get full blooms to enjoy.
Read on to discover the wildlife foragers that destroy petunias.
What is eating my petunias?
Petunias are a tasty treat to rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks which devour the petals fast. Caterpillars will eat holes in the leaves, whilst the budworm will burrow into buds causing emerging petals to have holes. Voles feed on the roots of petunias resulting in early wilt and eventual death.
Squirrels and chipmunks
Squirrels and chipmunks are one of the same, just with different living conditions.
Squirrels live in trees, chipmunks stay at ground level, sometimes digging burrows in the ground to nest in.
Squirrels will cause top-down damage, eating the petunia petals, whereas chipmunks are more likely to nibble on the bottom part of your petunias.
Even having your petunias elevated in a hanging basket won’t protect them from squirrels.
They’re extremely agile and will get into hanging baskets, quickly devouring every tasteful petal in sight.
Similar to the teeth of rabbits, a squirrel’s teeth continuously grow. They need to gnaw consistently so the damage these cause is intensive.
As with squirrels, rabbits prefer to munch on the petals of petunias.
However, in hanging baskets, it’s more likely to be squirrels gnawing your petals. Rabbits tend to nibble on the large flowerheads of ground-level petunias.
That said, rabbits have good reach.
Their hind legs are strong, but even without leaping to jump over a fence, they can stretch themselves tall to reach petals farther up from ground level.
Voles eat a variety of garden plants, but you’ll never notice bite marks. These mammals live underground, munching on the roots of plants.
Unlike moles that only disturb your plants while hunting for grubs and earthworms, voles will eat any plant vegetation within reach.
Signs of vole damage are disturbed soil around your plants, petunias wilting, but no visible damage to the flowers.
If you notice holes burrowed in your soil, dig slightly under the plant to see if the roots are being eaten. If they are, use vole traps to catch and relocate them.
Caterpillars are notorious for defoliating plants.
Cutworms are soil insects that hide by day and feed by night. You can sometimes see them come out to feed on cloudy days.
The most intense damage is seen a couple of inches above the soil line, primarily on young leaves.
The variegated cutworm is a climber that comes out from the soil, climbs the stem, and feeds on all parts of the plant.
The evidence cutworms leave is minuscule holes in the foliage.
In sufficient numbers though, the damage will be noticeable and can interfere with the plant’s blooming cycle.
As the caterpillars are nocturnal feeders, the only way to get rid of them is to treat the soil.
Although petunias are the nightshade family, these plants aren’t edible. As such, you can treat the soil with a pesticide.
Pesticides that can kill cutworms include Carbaryl, permethrin, and cyfluthrin.
For variegated cutworms, you can also treat the leaves of your petunias in the evening, ready for them coming out to feed.
Tobacco budworms burrow deep into the buds of petunias.
They’re also known by the name “geranium budworm” because it’s that plant, petunias, and similar plants they favor.
When the flowers emerge, they’ll have distinct holes in the petals.
As the caterpillar goes to work eating the petals, the blooms develop ragged edges.
Budworms are usually around 1.5 inches to 1.75 inches, and their colors can be brown, green, or red.
Given the size of these caterpillars, they aren’t difficult to spot. When you see them, pick them off.
Other types of caterpillars can be controlled using Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), but since budworms only feed on the petals, they won’t eat enough for it to have any effect.
Mechanical removal is the only way to control budworms on susceptible plants.
Each of these insects can be lumped into one category.
Insects that secrete honeydew – a sugary substance that attracts ants.
They each suck the sap from the leaves on plants and leave a trail of honeydew on the leaves. It’s a sticky substance that’s food for ants.
Once you get an insect infestation that’s sucking the juices out your plant’s foliage, the next problem is worker ants coming into harvest them.
Honeydew is like carbs for ants!
If you don’t attack the root source, which is the insects covering the leaves in honeydew, you’ll never get rid of ants.
They’ll stick around to farm them so they can keep on eating the honeydew as it’s rich in sugars that ants can’t get enough of.
Given long enough, they’ll drain the leaves dry causing severe defoliation.
These will cause the leaves on petunias to yellow, stunt their growth, and can spread Tobacco Mosaic Virus.
Aphid and similar scale insects can be controlled by spraying the underside of the leaves with water as that’s where they congregate.
You can also apply a treatment of natural insecticides such as neem oil to keep these things away.
Snails and slugs
Snails and slugs are slow to move, but don’t let that fool you. They’re ferociously fast eaters.
These will puncture huge holes in the leaves of your petunias.
The cause is usually having too much mulch around your plants because it’s effective at keeping up moisture levels.
High moisture is what attracts snails and slugs.
If you’re finding these critters are giving your plants too much attention, water earlier so it’s drier by nighttime, which is when slugs and snails are most active.
You’ll tell if these are eating holes in the leaves of your petunia by the trail of mucus they leave behind.
Eliminating them can be done by hand, using beer traps, or placing diatomaceous earth around the base of the plants they’re attracted to.
The sharpness of the diatomaceous earth scratches the snail or slug’s skin, leading to death brought about by dehydration. Probably before they reach your plant since they move at a snail’s pace.
Frequently asked questions about what eats petunias
Do deer eat petunias?
When much of the plant has been eaten, it’s probably a rabbit. The heights rabbits can reach can make you think it’s a deer that’s chewed your petunias to almost nothing. Although petunias aren’t exactly deer-resistant plants, a deer is more likely to trample over it to find something tastier.
Why are birds eating my petunia?
Birds typically eat seeds and insects. The flowerheads can go to seed, but if you’re seeing frequent visits of birds pecking at petunias, it can be a sign of an insect infestation. Inspect your plant closely to see if the birds are helping you control insects.
Marcel runs the place around here. He has a deep passion for houseplants & gardening and is constantly on the lookout for yet another special plant to add to his arsenal of houseplants, succulents & cacti.
Marcel is also the founder of Iseli International Commerce, a sole proprietorship company that publishes a variety of websites and online magazines.