by Ted Smith
The recent spate of unseasonably warm and sunny weather has undeniably got the attention of area gardeners. It also has the attention of a windowsill of geraniums that I’ve been holding in stasis over the dreary cold winter months. Last week we started our discussion of this long time stalwart of flower gardens across the globe. Today I’d like to look a little deeper at the amazing world of geraniums and wrap things up with this topic.
As we mentioned last week, the geraniums (Pelargonium spp.) is a South African native that likes tropical growing conditions. Plenty of warm sun and a moist but well draining growing medium are the two most crucial aspects of good geranium care. As long as you can provide for these simple needs, you will find that there is a geranium for nearly every situation.
There are essentially four main groups of geraniums. The group that local growers will likely be most familiar with is the zonal group. Zonal geraniums are the common geranium of your grandmother’s garden. Huge clusters of showy blooms ranging from white to pink, red to lavender, salmon and even bi-clours adorn these plants throughout the growing season. Interestingly, it is their leaf markings that gave rise to the name zonal geranium. Zonal geranium leaves have marked patches or “zones” of different colours, some even leaning toward a deep red. Useful in planters or directly in the garden, it’s hard to imagine a life with flowers that doesn’t also feature the use of geraniums.
One quick note to add in here, geranium leaves are toxic to dogs and cats. The opinions vary on just how toxic but there don’t seem to be any references to pet deaths in the literature. While the saps of some geraniums may cause dermatitis in pets and humans alike, human toxicity after ingestion does not seem to be an issue. Bugs beware though, as the essential oils in geranium leaves can be used in a wide variety of insecticides.
Another common group of geraniums is the Martha Washington group. Martha Washingtons are known for the extra large brilliant blossoms they carry. Leaves of these plants tend to be solid green but a little more crinkled than the leaves of zonal geraniums. Martha Washington geraniums seem to prefer slightly cooler night temperatures and for this reason bloom more reliably at the beginning and end of the summer. This makes the Martha Washington geraniums ideal plants for growing indoors throughout the year.
Ivy-leaf geraniums produce long trailing vines covered with thick glossy leaves. The foliage truly looks much more like an ivy than like a geranium. Because of their trailing nature, ivy-leaf geraniums are rarely used outside of hanging containers. Unlike their more tropically inclined brethren, ivy-leaf geraniums are quite capable of happily riding out a period of drought and will quickly recover once watered. Despite this, they are much happier when kept evenly moist and will also benefit from some shade when the summer heat begins to set in. While their flowers may be a little thinner in texture than other geraniums, ivy-leaf geraniums are still extremely colourful and are guaranteed not to disappoint.
Finally, the fourth (and my favourite) group of geraniums are the scented-leaf geraniums. Scented-leaf geraniums have the most diminutive flowers of all four groups. Mostly occurring in shades of white or pink, the tiny flowers are still pretty but they are not the reason we grow these plants. The leaves of scented-leaf geraniums is where the magic occurs. The leaves can be round and smooth, serrated and crinkled, or just about everything in between. The back of the leaf surface exudes scented essential oils that can smell like jnearly anything you can imagine. There are scented-leaf geraniums that smell like lemon, rose, chocolate, mint, orange, ginger and much much more. Prized for teas and potpourris, scented-leaf geraniums represent a whole world of plants just waiting to be discovered and experimented with. Just be sure to plant them in areas where they will be brushed and enjoyed for the aromas they release.
All geraniums should be constantly dead-headed as the old flowers fade. As long as you remove spent blooms, new clusters should continue to take their place. Also, if someone has an unusual geranium that you just have to try growing, ask them for a cutting. Geranium cuttings root readily in a simple glass of water or in warm damp seed starting mix.
The world of geraniums is out there waiting to be explored. Don’t miss out on the fun!