Pelargoniums blooming well into November

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Let’s talk geraniums. Or rather, let’s get our horticultural terminology right and talk pelargoniums instead; for the chances are you’ve been calling that pretty little flower with the unique fragrance and succulent stems – and more often than not, red blossoms – by the wrong name for many years.

It’s okay. In the words of most talk show hosts, family therapists and litigation lawyers these days, “It’s not your fault.” There are just too many retailers keeping the misnomer alive and passing it on to you, potted, tagged and forever seared into your memory as a geranium.

This will not pose a problem for you unless you start gardening seriously and begin to pay attention to the true geraniums – also known as cranesbills – those wispy, tantalizing beauties taking the garden to new heights in mid-spring. Chances are you’ll be introduced on a garden tour, when your host points to great mounds of delicately cut foliage and simple flowers in shades of lavender, pink or white and says “Just look at these geraniums!” You’ll look around in vain, searching for the old favorite, and later that evening do double duty on the internet, trying to figure out what he was talking about.

Hardy cranesbill geraniums

Hardy cranesbill geraniums

Both true geraniums (aka ‘hardy geraniums’ or ‘cranesbills’) and pelargoniums (aka ‘garden geraniums,’ ‘zonal geraniums,’ or sometimes ‘storksbills’) both belong to the family Geraniaceae, and were originally placed within the genus Geranium by Linnaeus. But you know these taxonomists. Why keep it simple? In 1789 Charles L’Héritier reclassified grandmother’s favorite into the genus Pelargonium – not that Home Depot paid any attention, then or now.

In the spirit of fairness to the good Monsieur, it makes sense. To the trained or the untrained eye, they are very different plants, with just a few similarities. In fact, very much like my siblings and myself. Same family different genus.

So, as I said 325 words ago, let’s talk gerani…ahem…I mean pelargoniums. I know they’re common. I know there’s little mystery and almost no kudos involved in growing them successfully. I know I am in very grave danger of having my “Serious Gardener” designation revoked. But hear me, plant snob and novice alike: the pelargonium is a garden survivor. This is not a flower that insists on expensive trips to the manicurist or a spa treatment every other week. Where friends like Lobelia or Impatiens will balk at the merest hint of an arid soil, the pelargonium almost prefers it – and that’s my kind of flower. And, kept during the winter in an unheated garage or basement, it will also reward the frugal soul with early color in the spring – about the same time that your neighbors are filling trolleys with pansies and nervously fingering their credit cards.

Ivy-leaved pelargoniums grace a window in Asti, Italy

Ivy-leaved pelargoniums grace a window in Asti, Italy

There is a reason the Germans and Italians use this wonderful plant in so many urban environments. Not graced with the temperate mercies of the Gulf Stream like their British cousins, they have to fight a little harder to keep their containers alive. Eighty percent of the time they choose pelargoniums – and more often than not, they select the ivy-leaved trailing varieties. I understand completely. I have battled for years to grow top-notch hanging baskets and window boxes, only to be thwarted by the wicked heat of July and the searing cruelty of August; and the only time I have been satisfied with the season’s performances have been the years that pelargoniums have graced the stage and stolen the show.

South African by birth, these plants have endured more hybridization than Homo sapiens sapiens. Most of the four inch pots that are flogged to consumers every spring are from the very large zonal group Geranium x hortortum and are propagated vegetatively, which is to say, from cuttings. With great care and attention it only takes ten weeks for a two inch cutting to turn into a spiffy little plant with a large bloom ready to go out and meet Joe Public – and the good news is, you can do this yourself (more or less) every autumn, or indeed grow other varieties from seed in the early spring.

I personally swerve towards the classic colors of scarlet red and purest white but there are many more out there (if you choose salmon, please don’t tell me about it). This year, I have an entire flat of zonals and another flat of ivy-leaved sitting on top of my washing machine waiting for reasonable outside temperatures or my tolerance level to snap suddenly – whichever comes first.

Believe it or not, there is much more to be said about these bright beauties, but nothing that a decent book can’t tell you. The point of my geranium….sorry….pelargonium diatribe is just to make you think twice about a flower that can brighten window boxes, garden beds and hanging baskets – and will ask for very little in return.