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Geraniums

Martha Stewart Living, May 2000

If you listed the characteristics of the ideal plant -- easy-care, long bloom, color, fragrance, shade tolerance -- you'd find that geraniums have them all. With their fanciful leaves, aromatic foliage, and striking flowers, geraniums offer something to all gardeners -- even those without a garden. They accept part shade, and provide months of color and fragrance in flowers beds and containers, even indoors. And their easy-going nature makes them ideal for novices. The only tricky thing is their name: Commonly known as geraniums, they actually belong to the genus Pelargonium, which includes about 250 species of annuals, perennials, and subshrubs native to warm regions like southern and eastern Africa.

Geraniums first became popular in the mid-eighteenth century, when hundreds of cultivars were available. More recently, many old-fashioned cultivars have fallen out of favor, only to be replaced by geraniums with showy flower heads. But the good news is many old-fashioned fancy-leaf and scented geraniums are available again, ready for rediscovery.

Geranium Groups
After centuries of hybridizing, it's difficult to trace a geranium's parentage, so most are grouped by appearance. The most common are described here.

Fancy-leaf geraniums, grown for their colorful foliage, are part of the zonal group and bear flowers in similar colors. The leaves may have combinations of green, white, yellow, coral, burgundy, and bronze; they may be splotched, banded, or edged in contrasting colors.

Ivy geraniums, trailing plants with ivylike foliage, are ideal for hanging baskets and window boxes. Many trailers, which spread up to 3 feet, tolerate shade better than other geraniums and also have attractive flowers ranging from white to pink to purple.

Regal, or Martha Washington geraniums, are grown for their large, frilly flowers in a broad spectrum of colors such as white, red, orange, purple, and burgundy. These bushy tender perennials can grow up to 4 feet tall and prefer part shade.

Scented geraniums offer a remarkable range of fragrance. Grown primarily for their foliage, these shrubby plants have aromatic leaves redolent of apple, balsam, citrus, rose, and mint, and other scents. The plants, which also have modest flowers, can grow to 3 feet tall. Some citrus-scented cultivars, such as 'Citrosa' and 'Citronella,' are said to repel mosquitoes.

Stellar geraniums, like their fancy-leaf cousins, belong to the zonal group and often have colorful foliage, but the relatively small, bushy plants are beloved for their airy flowers and pointed, star-shaped leaves.

Zonal geraniums, practically ubiquitous in window boxes in summer, are renowned for their showy flower heads in shades of white, pink, orange, red, and purple. The bushy, erect plants range from dwarf (5 inches tall) to tall (over 2 feet), and tolerate shade well.

In the garden, geraniums (Pelargonium) thrive in full sun to part shade, preferring more sun in cooler climates and requiring some shade in hot areas. The colors on variegated plants become more intense in dappled light. Because these tender perennials are hardy only to Zone 10, move them outdoors only after all threat of frost has passed. Once acclimated, they'll even tolerate a touch of frost.

Whether planted in garden beds or containers, geraniums require fast-draining soil and good air circulation. Water plants thoroughly when soil is dry to the touch, but never allow plants to sit in water. Feed plants with a balanced liquid fertilizer every 2 to 4 weeks from spring to midsummer, during their active growing season. Remember that high-nitrogen fertilizers promote lush, leafy growth, resulting in less aromatic foliage and fewer flowers. Deadhead flowers regularly.

To maintain a plant's shape and encourage bushiness, pinch growth points as necessary. Some geraniums tend to become leggy; train these into standards or prune to the desired shape.

To overwinter geraniums, take cuttings by late summer or early fall, or cut back plants by about one-third, and move them indoors. In winter, allow the soil to dry between watering and do not fertilize. In early spring, cut back any spindly growth.

Indoors, geraniums can be grown in a sunny window year-round. Care for them as you would garden plants.

Long prized for their essential oils, which are still used in perfumes, soaps, and potpourris, scented geraniums are primarily grown for their fragrance, but many also have charming flowers and foliage that are pleasing to other senses as well. Use the leaves to infuse teas, cakes, and sugars, or have a pot of scented geraniums close by so you can brush the plants with your hand or crush a few leaves to release their fragrance.

'Apple' is best known for the fruity scent of its bushy and spreading plants, which grow to 18 inches, but it also has delicate white flowers and lightly crinkled scalloped leaves.

'Balsam' grows up to 18 inches tall and has unusually delicate, ferny leaves and white flowers.

'Chocolate Mint' is grown for its scented leaves, which smell more like mint than chocolate, for its white flowers and large, dark-green leaves, which have a cocoa-colored marking along the veins. In the ground, the bushy plants can grow to 3 feet tall and wide.

'Lime,' with its ruffled citrus-scented dark-green leaves and pale-lavender flowers, has a bushy habit and grows to 18 inches tall.

'Peppermint Rose' is renowned for its aromatic foliage, but also offers finely cut gray-green leaves and airy pink flowers on plants that grow up to 3 feet tall.

'Pine' has a bracing scent and beautiful, rounded and scalloped dark-green leaves and blush-pink flowers on spreading plants that only grow up to 12 inches tall.

Grown almost exclusively for their colorfully patterned foliage, fancy geraniums, which include old-fashioned fancy-leaf geraniums and newer stellar types, often bear bold flowers as well. If you find the contrasting flowers a distraction, pinch them off before they bloom.

Fancy-Leaf Geraniums
Fancy-leaf geraniums trace their popularity back to the Victorian era, before the introduction of many of the large-flowered geraniums. Some fancy-leaf geraniums also offer charming flowers on plants of varying heights and habits.

'Crystal Palace Gem,' introduced in 1869, has striking, chartreuse leaves with a deep-green marking along the veins and single red flowers on spreading plants that remain under 14 inches tall.

'Grossersorten,' with its rounded dark-green and bronze leaves and delicate, orange flowers, has a mounding habit and grows to 18 inches tall.

'Happy Thought,' which also dates to Victorian era, has medium-green leaves with a pale-yellow center and clusters of scarlet flowers on 18-inch-tall plants.

'Mrs. Peters' bears single, bright-pink flowers amidst its green and cream variegated leaves on mounding plants that remain shorter than 14 inches.

'Occold Shield' has golden-green leaves with a bronze center and reaches about 15 inches tall, bearing double coral-red flowers.

'Skies of Italy,' as its name implies, has tricolor -- green, white, and red -- leaves. The mounding plants also bear single, scarlet flowers.

Stellar Geraniums
With their starlike leaves and airy flowers, stellar geraniums are perfect for window boxes, containers and other spots where their delicate foliage can be appreciated at close range.

'Arctic Star,' which bears clusters of relatively large white flowers above its deeply cut light- and dark-green leaves, has a bushy, mounding habit and grows to about 16 inches tall.

'Bird Dancer,' a miniature, has airy, delicate single salmon-pink flowers above its variegated pointed starlike foliage.

'Vancouver Centennial' has unusual burgundy leaves edged in green that grow close together on small bushy plants with unremarkable single orange flowers.