In the early 1700s, Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus came up with the system for classifying plants that we use today. As he grouped familiar plants into families, explorers were bringing new ones to Europe by the boatload. It was inevitable that some family members would later be reclassified. But after over 200 years in a clan of their own, pelargoniums are still commonly called geraniums.
Those of us who like and even collect true geraniums (by which I mean cranesbill) (left) would like to set the record straight. Named geranion because the fruit resembles a crane’s bill, this low-growing perennial is native to the temperate regions. The palmate foliage, which changes color in autumn, is attractively textured and sometimes aromatic. The plants are long lived, trouble free and cold hardy to Zone 5. They tolerate sun and semi-shade, making them ideal for woodland gardens. Many found growing wild have blue flowers which were a source of dye in the early Middle Ages. Blooming from late spring through summer, these flowers’ colors now range from pink to violet to blue.
Pelargoniums certainly deserve a family of their own. The plant was brought to Europe from the Cape of Good Hope in the early 1600s. The Dutch got to work hybridizing pelargoniums and by 1700 had produced the first of the striking red zonal bedding plants we know and love today. The plants are evergreen perennials in their native land and flower all year if temperatures stay above 45 degrees. In my California hometown, they are a spreading perennial if planted in the ground.
Pelargoniums are divided into four major groups. We rarely see the ivy-leaved type here. The leaves are shaped like ivy leaves. The trailing growth habit makes it a great choice for hanging baskets. Scented-leaf pelargoniums are growing more popular. They can be grown in pots and brought inside to overwinter.
The zonal type has variegated zones on the leaves. It is the most widely used, having vividly colored flowers that are nonstop performers throughout the growing season. The “regal” group is also called Martha Washington. These are bushier individual plants with larger, ruffled flowers. My mother collected these as well as the scented ones. They make good container specimens.
So, in the case of geranium, there are really two separate plant families sharing a common name. Cranesbill is the true member of the genus. Although reclassified in 1789, geranium
has remained synonymous with the flamboyant zonals gardeners know and love.
Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home.