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Field Guide: Pelargonium

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Field Guide: Pelargonium

Michelle Slatalla January 27, 2016

Pelargonium: “The Stork’s Head”

Please don’t call them “geraniums.” We have to get past that.

They’re actually pelargoniums, flowering plants indigenous to South Africa. In Sweden, where gardeners have a soft spot for these warm-weather natives, pelargoniums commonly spend the long winter indoors—in greenhouses or on windowsills, generally being coddled. There’s even a name for Sweden’s national addiction: pelargonsjukan, which translates to “pelargonic disease.” We prefer to think of it as a hobby.

babes-in-boyland-kale-salad-window-pelargonium-gardenista

Above: For more images, see Pelargoniums in our Photo Gallery. Photograph courtesy of Babes in Boyland.

These members of the family Geraniaceae are often misidentified as “geraniums.” Don’t they deserve better? With as many as 300 species, pelargoniums play a lot of useful roles in the garden: shrub, scented herb, container plant, and cheerful window box companion.

pelargonium-erin-boyle-gardenista

Above: Photograph by Erin Boyle.

You say geranium, I say pelargonium . . . but where did the confusion start? You can blame the 18th-century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus; he included them under the genus Geranium and the name stuck–despite the efforts of French botanist Charles L’Héritier to reclassify them a few decades later.

Cheat Sheet

  • Hardy and happy in window boxes and planters, pelargoniums are the backbone of many container gardens.
  • Variegated leaves and a wide range of flower colors–from white to ruby red to fuchsia pink–make pelargoniums a flexible companion to other summer annuals.
  • Varieties with scented leaves perfume the air with lemon, mint, rose, and coconut.

Keep It Alive

  • If you’re growing pelargoniums in pots, water sparingly and let the surface of the soil dry out.
  • Hardy in growing zones 9-11.
  • In other zones, you can root soft cuttings and keep them indoors as winter houseplants.

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Above: Photograph by Kendra Wilson.

The 19th-century American poet Frances Sargent Osgood had a soft spot for so-called scented geraniums. Of the flowers, she wrote, “Your heart is a rose, and your soul is a star!”

Pelargonium capitatum_marie-_viljoen_gardenistaAbove: Photograph by Marie Viljoen.

The plant’s nickname, the Stork’s Head, comes from the notion that the seed resembles a stork’s bill. The first known variety to be cultivated was Pelargonium ‘Triste’ (not shown, by the way), which is still available today (a packet of five seeds is $3.50 from Exotic Plants via Amazon). Pale pink with purple-striped petals and a yellow center, it can grow to a height of 18 inches.

rose-lemon-scented-pelargonium-standard-gardenista-justine-hand

Above: Photograph by Justine Hand.

To find out where you can see one of the finest collections of pelargoniums in the US, read The Scented Geranium: Spring’s Must-Have Plant (see, we do it too).

Planting your patio pots? See our guides to Alyssum and Boxwood and browse our full Field Guide archive.

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