Thursday, January 12, 2017

Scented Geraniums - Variety in Your Sunny Window

No collection would be complete without the velvety leaved Peppermint Geranium, Pelargonium tomentosum.  The decumbent growth and slivery sheen of the fine hairs on the leaves make each plant look like a flower arranger’s idea of perfection right in its own pot. (Description GBF, photo RFL, Lyon Botanical Garden, France.)

Scented geraniums, Pelargonium species are simple to grow and have enough uses to repay the care taken to bring them in the house year after year. The most commercially available scents are rose, lemon, apple, nutmeg and peppermint, Their leaf growth in its variety of forms adds to this plant family’s diversity.

One summer I asked a friend to check on my herb garden for some weeks.  She was happy to trade a few hours weeding and watering for the chance to harvest fresh herbs for her cooking. I had just set out a six inch rooted cutting of the lemon scented geranium, Dr. Livingston.  She rubbed the leaf and remarked on the nice smell.  When I came back from my vacation my friend greeted me with the sad news that she could not find Dr. Livingston.  Together we walked to the spot where it was planted.  I smiled as I looked down at the large sprawling Dr. Livingston geranium that had flourished in my absence.  I picked a couple of leaves and gave them to her and she smiled too.  Certainly it did not look like the young cutting and she had no idea it could grow that quickly.  The following copy written by my mother suggests that it is easier to learn to take cutting than to bring in a large plant at the end of summer. - RFL

Herbs for Every Garden by Gertrude B. Foster p. 123
Geraniums, Scented (Pelargonium species)
  The way one group of plants can develop scents similar to other flowers and fruits, as in scented pelargoniums, is one of nature’s great mysteries.  Certainly, perfumes have powers for remedial action against bacteria and affect the psyche to the extent of raising the spirits and stirring appetite and memory.  If all other means of gardening were closed to me, the fragrant mimicry of pelargoniums on a windowsill would carry me through the year, provided I had cuttings, a bit of sand, soil and adequate sun. 

Height. Aside from some climbing species, most geraniums do not exceed two feet in height, except where they are grown outside the year round, as in their native South Africa or in California
Leaf and blossom. There are many greenhouse varieties of pelargoniums.  The most familiar to herb growers is rose geranium, Pelargonium graveolens, with its broadly cut leaves of a rose-like perfume.  The flowers are small, separate pinkish or pink-veined with purple, and the foliage is the most significant aspect of the plant.  Peppermint geranium, with its velvety, grape-like leaves and small white blossoms is P. tomentosum. Lemon-scented, P crisp has the most conspicuous flowers of the group, on quite long stems, which are a deep rose color  Here again it is the leaf texture, crisped and of a fruit fragrance, which is distinguishes the plant.  Nutmeg and apple geraniums have small, almost rounded, soft gray leaves with the scent of spice or apple.
Culture.  Propagated by cuttings rooted in sand in full sun in the window garden or greenhouse, pelargoniums often grow too large in the garden to be returned to the house in the fall.  The lemon geranium takes longer than most to root, sometimes three months.  Cuttings of geraniums should be made six weeks before frost so that the plants may be potted before the source material is lot.  Drainage is important to pelargoniums.  The average potting soil mixture should have sand or fine grit added to it. It does no harm to the plants to have the pots small enough to dry out daily between waterings.  Blooms will be encouraged by undersize pots, and there will be less danger of root rot.
Uses. The pelargonium clan can furnish the basis for tiny bouquets called tussle-mussies.  The fresh leaves invite experimentation for garnishing fruit cup or salad. If leaves of rose geranium are put in a pint jar with granulated sugar the sweetening will take up the perfume flavor to be added to any dessert you prefer.  Apple jelly flavored with rose geranium leaves is an old-fashioned delight. 

1955 Herb Grower Magazine Volume 4 by Gertrude B. Foster
Scented Geraniums for a sunny window: A collection of Scented Geraniums, better known as Pelargoniums, offer fun and fragrance for the whole winter.  The variety of shapes of leaves, perfume of the foliage and general habit of growth is so great we often wonder why Pelargoniums are not more popular than African Violets.  The propagation is easier and the care indoors less fussy.

Maybe we really like them because they are unusual.  To collect all the types now available would take several years and a successful grower can make his own crosses.  Plants will bloom toward mid-winter, especially if they are fresh starts from cuttings made in late summer and kept slightly pot-bound. The blossoms are not as large as those of the well-known Geraniums but in their dainty way quite as appealing.  The real difference between the two groups is in the irregularity of petals in the Pelargoniums.

Geraniums have five evenly spaced and regular petals whereas in Scented Geraniums or Pelargoniums the groupings are in twos and threes with the upper ones usually larger and more colorful.

Not all Pelargoniums are as easy to propagate as the familiar Rose Geranium.  It has cut leaves of a rich rose-like odor often used to flavor apple jelly or sponge cake by placing a leaf in the bottom of the jelly glass or cake pan before filling. There are quite a few forms of Rose Geranium, Pelargonium graveolens.

Just glancing down one page of Pelargoniums in a catalog we see Camphor Rose, Skeleton Rose (the leaves are much thinner and cut like a skeleton of the Rose Geranium leaf), Large leaved Rose, Little leaf Rose and even a variegated mint-scented rose.

Usually the variegated ones are in the lemon-scented group, (botanically, Pelargonium crispum).  The leaves are smaller and crisped about edge with fine indentations.  Prince Rupert is the largest of the group with a very handsome form with creamy edging on the leaves.  Pelargonium crisp in all its varieties needs more water than Rose Geranium and is very slow to root.

Another Lemon-scented group is Pelargoium limoneum with a strong lemon pungency and fan-shaped, tooth leaves.  Lady Mary is Pelargonium Limoneum also, with showy flowers and a slight lemon scent.  Lemon Balm-scented Pelargonium is given a different species name, P. Melissimum.

There are forms with leaves in the shape of oak leaves, Pelargonoiium quercifolum, such as Giant Oak, Sharp-toothed Oak, Prostrate Oak, Staghorn Oak Leaf and Fair Ellen. There seems to be a sticky, glandular secretion upon the oak-leaf Pelargonium foliage.  It is not much scented but the flowers are among the showiest of the Scented Geraniums.

The Apple, Nutmeg types are rounded in leaf with a fine flannelly texture.  Apricot and Filbert-scented are other offerings in the Village Hill Nursery catalog.  To see the names, makes one want to create a conservatory just for Pelargoniums.  Mecca for a collector of this genus is the glass house at the New York Botanical Garden which houses a huge collection [in 1955].

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