Before you say "Yuck, I hate the smell of geraniums," let me reassure you, these are not the same as geraniums. Common names are so troublesome that way.
Scented geranium is not a geranium in the genus geranium. Scented geraniums are in the genus pelargonium. Admittedly, both genera are in the geranium family, and both have a number of oil-producing glands on their leaves. These oils are repel herbivores. The oils of geranium repel me from even growing them, but the oils in pelargonium are a whole different matter. They smell and taste great!
Originally from southern Africa, there are over 280 species of wild pelargonium. Southern Africa has many various climates, and pelargonium have taken on many various forms. Pelargoniums range from small herbaceous plants, to leafy woody shrubs, to clambering vines, to some with no leaves at all — just green water storage stems covered with spines.
The most popular pelargoniums are the herbaceous (non-woody) ones, which include around 70 species and well over 100 named cultivars. All of these have very distinctively different delicious scents. What kind of fragrances do you enjoy? Spicy, minty, lemony, fruity, sweet, musky, citrusy, or nutty? There's a pelargonium for that — and more. A partial list includes almond, apple, apple cider, apple mint, apple, chocolate mint, cinnamon, coconut, ginger, lemon rose, lemon, lime, nutmeg, orange, peach, peppermint, pineapple, rose and strawberry.
Brought into cultivation in the 17th century, pelargoniums have long delighted gardeners. Victorian ladies carefully lined their garden paths with pots of pelargoniums. Then, as they strolled with their beaus, their skirts would brush the plants and release wonderful fragrances, thus enchanting the gent of their dreams. Leaves were harvested all summer long for potpourri. The plants were brought indoors in winter to protect them from frost and provide living potpourri.
Along with potpourri, pelargonium leaves can be used as flavoring in tea, to make herbal vinegars, bath salts, or tasty herb sugars. Some varieties can be baked in cakes, and are used by five star chefs in creating unique desserts.
Growing pelargoniums is easy. Just remember their southern African origins. Protect from frost, provide ample light, and make sure the soil is well drained. Use a cactus mix for best growth. This is one third soil, one-third sand, and one-third perlite or pumice.
Since you must protect from frost, most folks grow pelargonium in pots that can be moved to a sheltered location or indoors in winter. Or you can try growing them in beds that are well sheltered. Southern African heat is not as hot as ours, so you will want to provide summer shade for part of the day, afternoon if you can.
Pelargoniums are easily propagated from cuttings. My best success is if I allow the bottom of the cuttings to callus, or air dry, for 24 hours. I then dip lightly in rooting hormone and place directly into the pots they will live in. Keep them moist but not dripping wet.
The best time to start pelargoniums is right now. Some species are semi-dormant in the heat of summer, and will not root well until fall. Due to this semi-dormant state, you will want to avoid overwatering in summer.
Several area nurseries carry pelargoniums, or you can order them through a number of on-line sites. Most places will ship between Oct. 1 and Nov. 15, or again in spring.
Whether you call them pelargonium or scented geranium, they still smell as sweet, and they make a fantastically fragrant addition to the garden.
Jacqueline has been gardening in the Southwest since childhood. Dr. Soule has been writing articles about how to garden successfully in our area for over two decades. for private consultation about your landscape, contact me, Jacqueline, at 292-0504. Please leave a voice message.