Ivy leaf pelargonium, Pelargonium peltatum
Let’s first clear the air about the ongoing name debate regarding pelargoniums versus geraniums. If you look online, most articles mention the ivy leaf type as a geranium and not a pelargonium. However, I chatted with expert and owner of Geraniaceae Nursery Robin Parer, who has been selling plants in the geranium family for the past 40 years, and according to her, the debate was settled all the way back in 1792. “Botanists proposed a change in name for pelargoniums coming out of South Africa to Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, based on distinguishing floral characteristics that differentiated them from the geraniums growing as wild flowers all over Europe. Geraniums and pelargoniums were seen to have floral characteristics in common but were different enough to be separated into different genera,” she tells me. Robin goes on to share that the gardening public, however, didn’t go along with this nomenclature, and, alas, “here we are 231 years later, still calling pelargoniums by the ‘wrong’ name.”
For me, regardless of this family feud, I adore the ivy leaf types for their classic look, loose habit, and charming flowers. Please keep reading to learn more about ivy leaf pelargoniums.
Photography by Donn Reiners, courtesy of Geraniaceae Nursery.
A handful of flowers color my childhood memories: gardenias (intoxicating scent), fuschias (dangling buds that I use to pop) and, of course, both geraniums and pelargoniums (classic petal power). I learned about the ivy type when I started designing gardens and especially when I began creating container gardens. I truly appreciate them for their variety of colors, which can blend into any color scheme, their ability to weave and politely mingle through other plants, and their knack for spilling over and softening pot edges.
Coming in a dizzying array of colors and sporting five-lobed leaves reminiscent of ivy (hence the common name), these sweethearts have looser inflorescence and a more relaxed habit than zonal varieties. Ivy leaf pelargoniums start showing up in nurseries in the spring, and this is the best time to snatch them up and get them into your garden. Their fast growth is a plus—buy these plants in 4-inch sizes and they quickly fill a space and start blooming right away.
You can find traditional ivies that have thick fleshy leaves, but they tend to flower less than the trailing types that can have variegated or straight green leaves and single-type flowers. Thanks to collectors, growers, and nurseries, a variety of shapes, sizes, and forms exist. Robin doesn’t grow the latest varieties that you can find in garden centers or nurseries, focusing instead on heirloom varieties. “I am keen on keeping the heirloom plants in cultivation for their wide range of colors, their history, and their general interest. Some of these plants go back to the 19th century.”
Robin grows 124 ivy-leaf varieties and a few of her favorites are:
Pelargonium ‘L’Elegante’ from 1868 with variegated leaves in white green and pink and white flowers.
‘El Gaucho’ from 1945 with light purple double flowers.
‘Balcon Royale’ with red/orange flowers, ‘King of the Balcons’ with pink flowers, and ‘Mini Lilac Cascade’. Apparently The Balcons are the pelargoniums you see in window boxes throughout Europe, most often as single flowers with five petals in red, white and pink.
‘Sugar Baby’ and ‘Nutmeg Lavender’ are both small and compact.
- Lovely when added to hanging baskets, window boxes, and containers, where their long, cascading habit can show off. Less commonly, they’re planted on the edge of retaining walls.
- The stems and flowers can be delicate so avoid planting these near busy walkways where they can be bumped into and disturbed.
- Hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies love to visit the long-blooming flower clusters.
- Mildly toxic to small children, cats, and dogs.
- Perfect plant companions are Campanula, Myers fern, Lomandra and Fuschias.
Keep It Alive
- In mild summer areas, plant in full sun, and in areas with sweltering summer temperatures (above 85 degrees) plant them in at least morning sun and then light afternoon shade. Too much shade means fewer flowers.
- Well-draining soil is preferred with regular drinks of water. Try not to let these cuties dry out.
- Pruning is essential to thriving plants. Robin suggests tip pruning when you fertilize. Simply use your thumb and forefinger to pinch out the growing tip (the final two leaves) on all the stems as this will force the plant to produce more stems, and particularly side stems. If you have neglected pruning for a while, remove about one third. The next trim, if the stem is still too long, remove about another third. Pro Tip: Always cut just a little above a node (where the leaf joins the stem) and be aware that cutting into old brown wood on pelargoniums can be fatal so trim only green stems.
- To ensure a long bloom time, remove spent flowers. Some plants will keep on flowering and others are programmed to stop after a certain period no matter what you do, so try experimenting with different varieties.
- Robin highly recommends fertilizing at least once a month during the growing season with a 10-10-10 or even 15-15-15 fertilizer.
- Hardy to USDA Zones 9-11.
- DIY: Scented Sachets (and Tea) with Geranium Leaves
- Scents and Sensibility: The Scented Geranium is Spring’s Must-Have Plant