ISSUE 16  |  Going Green

Scents and Sensibility: The Scented Geranium is Spring’s Must-Have Plant

April 09, 2014 9:00 AM

BY Justine Hand

By now the staff at the Lyman Estate Greenhouses in Waltham, MA, is pretty familiar with that lady from Gardenista, who keeps showing up to photograph their botanicals. Luckily Lynne, Julie, and Francesca share my passion for plants, and are happy to humor me as I pepper them with endless questions about all their rare varieties. The latest Lyman specimen that I’m geeking out over? Scented geraniums. 

I first noticed several lush scented geraniums, or Pelargoniums as they are more accurately called, during my initial visit to the historic Lyman Greenhouses (you can see my tour at Living History: One of America’s Oldest Greenhouses), and I was surprised to learn just how varied and exotic their fragrances could be. After hearing that their uses went beyond the garden, I was hooked. “You should come back for our annual herb sale in May,” Lynne remarked. “We’ll have many more then.” Yes, please!

Photographs by Justine Hand for Gardenista.

Above: Flanked by the small, variegated leaves of a French lace (Back) and a velvety peppermint (Fore), the demure lilac bloom of an orange-scented geranium welcomes spring at the Lyman Estate. Similar Pelargonium “Orange” is available through Goodwin Creek Gardens; $5.50.

Above: Available at the Lyman Estate’s upcoming annual herb sale (May 2-4), this assortment of scented geraniums includes (clockwise from top L): citronella, skeleton rose, variegated nutmeg, lemon, finger bowl lemon, lemon balm, French lace, rose, lime, citrosa, and apple. If you can’t make the Lyman Estate annual herb sale to choose your own assortment, Goodwin Creek Gardens will assemble a Scented Pelargonium Collection of six; $23.95.

More correctly identified as Pelargoniums, “geraniums” are a species of flowering plants in the family Geraniaceae. (Confusingly, Geranium is actually the correct botanical name for cranesbill, also a member of the family Geraniaceae.) Since they were first brought from South Africa in the 1600s, pelargoniums have been prized not only for their blooms, but also for the fragrance of their oil-rich leaves. There are five general classifications of scented pelargoniums: rose, mint, fruit–which includes citrus, spice–including pepper, apple cider and others, and finally pungent (encompassing all woody smells like pine and oak). Centuries of hybridization within these categories have produced literally hundreds of cultivars, which have been used in perfumes, as folk medicine, and in cooking. 

Above: A container planting at the Lyman Greenhouse includes Goodwin Creek Lavender and a citrosa-scented geranium. Scented geraniums do very well in containers, especially when grouped with other semi-drought tolerant plants and herbs such as sage, rosemary, and lavender.

Pelargonium Citrosa Scented Geranium is available at Mountain Valley Growers; $5.50 for a 3-inch pot.

Above: Low and lush, some pelargoniums such as this citronella-scented geranium (which is surrounded by fallen bougainvillea blooms) look charming when placed along a pathway or garden border. N.B.: It is a myth that citronella-scented geraniums repel mosquitoes. But they do have a lovely citrus scent.

Hardy to zone 10, scented geraniums can be a perennial or an annual, depending on where you live. In-ground plants prefer well-drained, slightly acidic soil with a pH of from 6 to 6.8. Some prefer moist while others dry soil, so check with your nursery before you plant.

Those who live in colder climes may prefer to keep their scented geraniums in pots, so they can be moved indoors as soon as night-time temperatures dip below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Indoor plants are best placed in the south-facing window which receives at least four hours of sun per day. You can also use an in-gound planter in the garden during the summer and move it inside before the first frost.

Whether in-ground or in a container, most varieties of pelargonium require full sun to thrive, but be careful of scorching by too much afternoon sun. When watering, less is more. Too much water or fertilizer will compromise the bloom and scent of your plant, so be sure to let it dry out in between waterings.

Above: Unlike their “Zonal” and “Fancy-Leaf” cousins cultivated for their colorful leaves and/or vibrant blooms, scented geraniums have more understated flowers. But on some, such as this mint, the blooms can be quite prolific. In colder climes, geraniums can be moved indoors, where they will continue to bloom in the winter.

Above: A hanging coconut-scented geranium at Lyman lends a tropical air. Similar Coconut Scented Geraniums are available through Colonial Creek Farm; $4.50.

Above: One of my favorite specimens at the Lyman Greenhouses was a lush peppermint-scented geranium with soft, velvety leafs. Note that in the right conditions, geraniums can get quite large. 

Above: A mixed planting of French lace, variegated nutmeg, and peppermint, illustrates the variety of pelargonium leaf structures,–from deeply cut lacy leaves to a more rounded grape-leaf shapes–hues, and sizes. These wide variations makes them ideal for adding texture in the garden.

Above: Scented Geraniums, such as this Rober’s Lemon Rose, can easily be trained into Standard forms. Similar Rober’s Lemon-Rose Scented Pelargonium available at Pernell Gerver; $12 for a 3-inch pot.

Above: Though many scented geraniums are low and bushy, other varieties have a more vertical growth habit. Among its smaller cousins, this tall skeleton rose, resplendent with pink blossoms, provides a striking backdrop.

Above: Part of any complete herb garden, French lace, variegated nutmeg, and peppermint pelargoniums grow next to sage at Lyman Greenhouses. Buy similar Pelargonium Snowy Nutmeg and Pelargonium Staghorn Peppermint at Goodwin Creek Gardens; $5.50.

Besides adding scents and texture to the garden, there are many other uses for your scented geraniums. The Fingerbowl Lemon Pelargonium got its name because it was used by ladies at elegant lunches to clean their hands. In the more modern era, Erin likes to conjure the scent of summer with her Rose Geranium Salt Rub, while Sarah uses rose geranium oil in her Homemade Eau de Cologne.

For the same reasons that scented pelargonium are desired in the garden, they are also great for adding texture and aroma to bouquets. See how with Sophia’s Office Flowers with a Scent The Even Co-Workers will Love.

In the kitchen, Stacy uses geranium oil in boiling water to dispel unpleasant cooking smells in The Power of Fragrance: 10 Secrets for Banishing Kitchen Odors. Stay tuned later today for my recipe of olive oil, lemon cake with rose geranium leaves.

Above: A surprising combination with pelargonium and amaryllis, demonstrates how well scented geraniums mix with more ornamental, flowering plants.

True species are hard to propagate from seed, so the preferred method of cultivating pelargoniums is from cuttings. To do this, take a 4-to-6-inch cutting right below the leaf node. Remove any lower leaves and place the node 2 inches deep in a small, sterile pot filled with planting medium. Water thoroughly and place in indirect sun while the roots form, which may take from four to six weeks, keeping them moist the whole time. After roots are established, move to a sunny spot and water only when the soil is dry. Repot in a larger container as necessary.

N.B.: Take a garden tour of another outstanding Lyman collection in Cult of the Wild Camellia. Read more about how the Swedes take pelargoniums to dramatic proportions in Please Don’t Call Them Geraniums. Over at Remodelista, one of Julie’s 10 Favorites, The Best of Black Soap includes an enticing mix of peppermint, geranium, rose and cedar.