A PASSION FOR PELARGONIUMS
These six unique varieties of pelargoniums are quite rare and mysterious—and worth tracking down.
By Susan Heeger/Garden Design Magazine
Photos by Marion Brenner
To lose your heart to pelargoniums, you must first know they’re not geraniums (the two are often confused). Nor are all of them splashy, red hybrids—those common pelargoniums can be found in countless backyards. No, the path to obsession is to know that some examples of this plant—like the ones on this page—are quite rare and mysterious. With thick, rough roots and knobby stems that sprout fine leaves and small blooms worth studying up close, some pelargoniums can look like Japanese bonsais or desert shrubs. Mostly native to South Africa, “pellies” are exquisitely attuned to the demands of their former home.
P. cotyledonis - Because of roaming goats, this species is endangered on its native St. Helena, an island off the coast of West Africa. Resembling a Lilliputian tree with heart-shape leaves, it blooms white from spring into summer and appreciates a bit of summer shade.
Pelargonium caffrum, which hails from the coastal hills of the Eastern Cape, develops extra-long flower stems that push through the grasses. Meanwhile, P. crithmifolium wraps a veil around itself after blooming to discourage browsing animals. Others have night-scented flowers that beckon nocturnal pollinators or ample blue-gray leaves that ward off salty sea spray. Ranging from a few inches to several feet wide and tall, some scramble like vines or grow trunks like little trees. Their leaves might be narrow, heart- or palm-shape, densely fuzzy, or sleekly smooth; their flowers (some fringed exotically) come in a spectrum of whites, reds, yellow-greens, and almost-blacks. Most have odd, fleshy roots, which sustain the plants through dormant seasons. This dainty summer bloomer from South Africa’s Cape Province grows 15 to 18 inches tall in the wild and erupts in fringed, unscented, wine-colored flowers. It dislikes extreme heat, preferring morning sun and shady afternoons. Keep it slightly moist during the growing season.
Robin Parer has been growing pelargoniums—along with geraniums and erodiums—for more than 35 years. Parer, a native Australian, fell for the entire Geraniaceae family in her youth, beginning with collectible, scented-leaf pelargoniums and moving on to grow and sell more than 900 varieties through her aptly named nursery, Geraniaceae, in Marin County, California. Parer traveled to South Africa to track down her favorites in their natural habitats, from the vinelike P. gibbosum along the country’s rocky Western Cape to the long-living P. schizopetalum, which she found in the haunting Drakensberg mountains.
P. gibbosum - This is a coastal species and vinelike scrambler with long, semi-succulent leaves and stems that grow woody with age and flower yellow-green in winter. Parer describes its night-fragrant blooms as “strange and sweet, vanilla - and clove-scented with a feral note.”
Parer tells her clients that once you know a pellie’s origins and habits—whether it naturally thrives on fog-bound bluffs or blooms in winter, for instance—they’re not difficult to please. To that she adds a few key rules: Don’t water pellies when they’re dormant. Given their origins, pellies can’t tolerate heavy soil or freezing temperatures, which, in most parts of the United States, means growing them in containers and whisking them indoors for the winter. In milder regions (USDA Zones 9 and 10), one can plant them in garden beds with very good drainage, making sure they have some shelter from the hottest summer sun.
P. curviandrum - Not often grown because of its long summer dormancy, this species thrives in mountainous scrubland on South Africa’s very dry Southern Cape. A rosette of hairy leaves sprouts from its underground tuber in spring, followed by tiny white-and-burgundy flowers.
The rewards of cultivating pellies, says Parer, far outweigh the demands. As the plants cycle through the year, they dramatize “the subtle intricacies of nature.” The greatest challenge might be laying hands on these collectors’ gems, which, admittedly, is part of their charm. “You have to really look,” Parer says. “It’s like a treasure hunt!”,
P. triste - The first pelargonium introduced to England in the 17th century, this species has been cultivated for 400 years. Bonsai enthusiasts grow it high in the pot, exposing its knobbed tuber, which the plant doesn’t mind. It has night-scented winter blossoms, and its leaf color and form varies.
P. carneum - This rare species produces large (1.5-inch), unscented autumn flowers after its leaves drop. Hard to propagate, it hails from rocky crevices and scrub in the limestone hills of South Africa’s Southern Cape. In a pot, it grows a mere 5 inches wide and 8 to 10 inches tall from a turnip-shape tuber.
A popular and colorful hanging basket for a sunny location is the ivy leaf geranium. Many of the newer and improved hybrid ivy leaf geraniums will tolerate dry and hot conditions. These hanging baskets will be full of color right up to the first frost as long as you follow these simple suggestions.
LOCATION Ivy geraniums thrive best in areas of full sun. They can flower well if given a half day of sun, but shady areas should be avoided. Protect from any chilly springtime winds and temperatures below 40 degrees. Never keep a basket indoors for any long periods of time, since the leaves will start to turn yellow.
FERTILIZING AND WATERING Ivy geraniums do better under slightly dry conditions. Allow the basket to become slightly dry before watering again. Avoid watering in the afternoon, since wet foliage encourages disease. Ivy-leaf geraniums are heavy feeders,
so feed about every ten days with a recommended liquid fertilizer, such as Rapid Grow or Peters. Occasionally an iron deficiency shows up. This problem effects the newer growth; the veins in the leaves remain green while the margins of the leaves turn a light
green to white. Adding an iron supplement takes care of the problem. Exposing ivy geraniums to very high temperatures will sometimes 'bleach' the new growth as well. As soon as the plants are returned to a cooler location, this problem disappears.
INSECTS AND DISEASES Few insects bother ivy leaf geraniums. The worst insect is mealy bug which lay cotton like masses of eggs in the leaf axils. Red spider mite could be a problem in hot dry weather. They dislike humidity so an occasional hosing of the
foliage will discourage them. Any recommended insecticide will control pests like mealy bugs. During cool and damp conditions, botrytis or gray mold will cause the leaves to yellow and rot. Clean off any old flowers and leaves. Odema which is a blistering of the foliage is caused by watering too late in the day, and keeping the basket too wet.
Ivy geraniums may be brought indoors during the winter, but they bloom rather sporadically. The baskets can be trimmed back next spring and placed outdoors when the danger of frost has passed.
Source: Al Krismer Plant Farm - www.krismers.com
Wikipedia: Erodium is a genus of flowering plants in the botanical family Geraniaceae. The genus includes about 60 species, native to North Africa, Indomalaya, The Middle East, and Australia. They are perennials, annuals, or subshrubs, with five-petalled flowers in shades of white, pink, and purple, that strongly resemble the better-known Geranium (cranesbill). American species are known as filarees or heron's bill, whereas Eurasian ones are usually called storksbills in English.
Erodiums are the Cinderellas of the geranium family: beautiful, worthy, and neglected, although usually easy to propagate and cultivate. Erodium reichardii(syn. E. chamaedryoides) is widely available from retail nurseries in the West for use as a ground cover; small collections of a few species or hybrids of unusual erodiums are sometimes found in collectors’ rock gardens. However, there are many excellent plants that are generally unavailable, neglected, or ignored. Although their cold hardiness can be a problem in the central and eastern parts of the United States, erodiums will grow successfully in most of the West Coast states. Many erodium grow naturally in calcareous soils, and respond well to the addition of dolomite, oyster grit, or even concrete chips to potting soils that are neutral to somewhat acidic. As with many other genera, only a few members of the genus Erodium have silver leaves.
Robin Parer/Pacific Horticulture
Zonal geraniums (Pelargonium x hortorum), also called common and garden geraniums, receive their name from the colored bands, dubbed zones, present on their leaves. Zonal geraniums include hundreds of varieties, each producing single or double blooms in ball-shaped clusters throughout the growing season. Flower colors include orange, red, salmon, pink, white and lavender, and a single plant produces multiple balls at one time. Zonal geraniums grow in a rounded, upright shape and work well in planters, borders, mixed flowerbeds and containers. Some varieties of zonal geraniums produce lacy leaves, or leaves with white margins or variegated patterns.
Most people mistakenly call those "red balls of flowers" geraniums, when they are, in fact, pelargoniums! So - what's the difference - and why do we call pelargoniums by the wrong name?
When these plants were first brought to Europe from South Africa it was thought they were the same as the European Geranium. It was later found that, though they do share many similarities, they differ in several ways. The 'new' plants were re-classified as Pelargoniums, with both the Geranium and the Pelargonium classified as genera of the Geraniaceae Family.
True Geraniums are known as Cranesbills, which refers to the shape of the seedpod.
five petals that are the same size and shape as each other;
ten fertile stamens;
seed pods with 'curls' that act like a catapult to hurl the ripened seeds away from the parent plant;
many thin stems attached to fibrous roots;
they don't grow well in very hot, dry regions.
Pelargoniums were so named because the seedpods resemble the beak of a stork. (Pelar means stork).
five petals, of which the upper two differ in shape and size from the lower three (more noticeable on the species or 'original') ;
ten stamens, but not all are fertile;
seed pods have a feathered end that enables them to float on the breeze to find a place to grow;
succulent, thick stems that hold moisture to enable them to withstand drought.
Source: Geranium and Pelargonium Society of Western Australia
When people think about geraniums, the image they usually conjure up is a big ball of red flowers - and think "BORING!" While some of the most lovely geraniums (pelargoniums, to be exact) ARE red balls of flowers, there are so many more varieties within the Geraniaceae species of plants - there's something for everyone! We hope to expose you to the richness of the plants encompassed in this family!
To whet your appetite, here are some photos representing each type of plant found withing the Geraniaceae family!
Posts are made by Brenda Archer or Sharon Pearce - both are past Presidents of the San Diego Geranium Society!