Pelargoniums: Or Is It A Geranium?

No matter what you call it, this garden staple invokes memories at the mere sound of the name. Grown mainly for the color impact of both the flowers and leaves and the fragrance emitted when the leaves are bruised, this plant can offer an infinite variety of uses. Introduced in the seventeenth century, the name originates from the Greek language where pelargos means sharply beaked or stork-like and refers to the shape of the seed head when it is mature. 

Originating in the subtropical regions of South Africa and Australia, they were discovered by explorers who found the plants growing in dry, frost-free climates. Shipped to Holland, they were gradually introduced to Britain and transported throughout Europe, and eventually, in the Victorian era; they gained popularity throughout America as a conservatory plant. Confusion about the generic/common names of the plant ‘geranium’ vs. ‘pelargoniums’ has been ongoing for many years.

The botanical group (or genus) known as ‘geranium’ refers to plants that are frost tolerant. This group is now making a tremendous comeback among perennial gardeners. With the ease of care and the fact they do not need to be ‘wintered over’ in the house, gardeners are hearing more about ‘hardy geraniums’. Pelargoniums are tropical plants commonly referred to as ‘geraniums’.

They are frost tender and are often used as indoor plants to liven up a winter windowsill.  Classified by 16 distinct features or natural groups, one such group is the zonal geranium. The zonal geranium has a banded leaf that may vary in color and from dark green to lime green with an obvious band appearing across the leaf. They may be bi-colored or tri-colored and are often used as a focal point in window boxes or container plantings.

Preferring good natural light conditions, it protests when placed in bright direct sunlight, which will fade the distinctive leaf color variation.   Another popular group is the regals which includes ‘Martha Washington’ and ‘Lady Washington’. Displaying flowers resembling azaleas, a dedicated gardener may get these to re-bloom but not everyone can achieve this success.

The secret to successfully growing this plant; may be a more shady location. They are easily overshadowed in borders but may thrive and perform better in container plantings when showcased as a single specimen planting. Scented pelargoniums are usually found lumped in with herbs due to the fact the flowers are minimal, sparse, and more primitive in appearance.

The big attraction to this type of pelargonium is the oil and scent emitted when the leaves are crushed and bruised. Used extensively in potpourris, sachets, and tea flavorings they are invaluable to this aspect of gardening. Included is this group is the citronella pelargonium which is used as an insect repellant. Known as the ‘mosquito geranium’ it has been genetically engineered by introducing the gene code of the citronella grass to encourage the production of citronella oil. Like the others, there is no spectacular flower on this plant. Ivy leaf or trailing geraniums were developed about 300 years ago and they are usually found in hanging baskets and planters. The trailing vine-like growth habit sports less spectacular flowers, with narrow petals and more open flower heads. Easy to grow and more tolerant to extremes in temperature, this versatile vine is often the most popular of the pelargoniums grown today. 

Pelargoniums reside best in well-drained soil, in full sun to partial shade, full noonday sun may tax the plant. If the soil is not draining fast enough, this could lead to stem rot or the presence of fungus. Removal of spent flowers and leaves discourages the onset of these problems. Pinching the plant will encourage a more compact, uniform growth and is important to shape the plant. When watering your pelargonium, keep in mind they have long roots that seek out water. Therefore, a good through watering is more beneficial rather than a sparse drink everyday. 

When fertilizing your pelargonium, keep in mind a small amount frequently does a better job than a massive dose occasionally. Granular-based or water-introduced fertilizer will work equally well. You may prefer granular for hanging baskets. Zonals and Regals will require a fertilizer high in potassium to develop healthy flowers.  Tomato fertilizer works well for these plants (potassium is the last number found on the label) however; overdosing with potassium may lead to a magnesium deficiency
that will cause the leaves to form yellow patches.

To remedy this, use a water mixture containing Epsom salts at the rate of one ounce per five gallons of water. The other classifications of pelargoniums thrive on a fertilizer high in nitrogen and will produce healthy blooms for the entire growing season. No matter how you choose to use this versatile plant, the rewards are many and the rainbow of color provided by will make you appreciate the ease and rewards of growing this favorite flower.

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