Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
August, 2006
Regional Report

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The flowers of scented geraniums, often described as small and whimsical, are not nearly as showy as their common relatives, but the scented foliage makes them treasures in the garden.

Scented "Geraniums"

If you're looking for a plant that's easy to grow, drought-resistant, animal-resistant, and one that can bring glory to your outdoor garden and delight you all winter, plus generate a world of scent wherever it resides, the plant for you is obvious -- the scented geranium. More accurately called "scented pelargonium," this favorite of Victorian households and public gardens has become the darling of modern gardeners.

To some, scented pelargoniums are an herb. The leaves can be used in cooking, crafts, and fragrance products like many common herbs, but they aren't technically an herb. Their scientific name is Pelargonium, and they are in the same family as true geraniums. Not all pelargoniums are scented, thus the distinguishing term "scented pelargoniums," or to those of us intimately acquainted with these romantic collectible plants, simply "scenteds." It's believed there are nearly 300 varieties of scenteds, although no one's completely sure since they hybridize so easily.

Unlike geraniums, pelargoniums have relatively small flowers in white, pink, purple, red, or variegated colors. The flowers themselves usually have no scent. Blooms are typically five-petaled and seem to be most numerous when the plant is kept slightly pot-bound. But it's the leaves that, to me, make scented pelargoniums so fascinating and enjoyable to cultivate. The variations in shape, color, size, and texture are myriad. Some leaves are shiny, some are fuzzy. Leaf colors vary from green to almost gray. Some are variegated, and patterns are graceful and intricate, making them favorites for using in pressed flower crafts. Leaf shape categories include fern leaf, oak leaf, narrow leaf, and round leaf. Some pelargoniums have a trailing growing habit, making them naturals for hanging baskets. Leaf sizes vary from 1/2 to over 6 inches.

Most scented pelargoniums are semi-woody shrubs, but some of the smaller types grow from central rosettes. Plants vary in height from 1 to 3 feet. Depending on what you are going to use them for -- as a container plant or in the landscape -- you'll want to know your particular variety's growing habits and plan accordingly.

Scents to Please Any Nose
As if all these variations aren't enough to intrigue you, the number of fragrances attributed to "scenteds" gives us an even wider array of characteristics to guide us. So many scenteds exist, in fact, that the "smells" have been divided into categories: rose, mint, fruit, spice, and pungent. Some enthusiasts add a "miscellaneous" or "other" category, too, for those scents that, well, just can't quite be categorized! I currently have several rose variations, including a rose/mint combination, several citrus scents, a nutmeg, a clove, an almond, and a peach. And I'm just beginning to collect. Of course, not everybody agrees that an apricot smells like an apricot. The nose knows.

A Celebrated Past
Part of what attracts me, and others, I suspect, is the history of these delightful plants. What we now call scented geraniums were well known to our ancestors throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, but were simply called rose geraniums or lemon geraniums, since these were the common varieties. But their origins in Europe and America actually go back to the 17th century, when they were brought from southern Africa on sailing ships, first to Holland, then to England and America.

But it was the Victorians who truly embraced the scented pelargoniums, because of their devotion to lush and lavish houseplants and their love of scent. The rose pelargonium, specifically P. graveolens, is used to produce "geranium" essential oil, and is an ingredient in many fine perfumes and beauty products. The oil is said to be both calming and refreshing.

Growing Tips
The ease of growing scented pelargoniums is a large part of their popularity and charm. They're tender perennials, so they can't withstand frost, but bringing them indoors is actually a pleasure. What other houseplant gives you back a breath of perfume every time you brush against it? An added bonus is being able to use the scented leaves all winter long in baking, brewing teas, fragrance products, and crafts.

According to Jim Becker and Faye Brawner, authors of the excellent book Scented Geraniums: Knowing, Growing and Enjoying Scented Pelargoniums, the ideal temperature for scenteds is 65 to 70 degrees during the day and 50 to 60 degrees at night. But I've found mine to be extremely forgiving. Scenteds can take full sun, except for the mint varieties, which need considerably more shade. These work beautifully around a shady tree. During the summer, I just keep mine in containers on the front porch in semi-shade. They get the morning sun and seem to do just fine.

Although scenteds don't need a lot of watering, in the peak summer months you'll need to water more often. The tendency is to over-water, and this is the most common reason for failure when growing pelargoniums. When you do water, make sure to give them a deep soaking, not just a spritzing at the surface, since they have very few small feeder roots.

Scenteds don't need a lot of fertilizer, either. Use commercial plant fertilizer at half the strength recommended for houseplants. Fertilize when they're actively growing, and refrain during winter months. Pelargoniums like well-drained soil. Cut them back in the winter to prevent them from becoming leggy. In fact, regular pruning just makes them grow better, and you can use cuttings to start new ones since they root easily.

Make sure to bring your scenteds indoors before the first frost or, if you're planning to use them in the landscape as an annual, take cuttings to start indoors for the next season. Just make sure to keep them where you can touch them often, since this is at least half the fun.

If you're wondering what to do with the leaves from your scenteds, you need look no further than any number of crafts, cooking, or herbal books available in local book stores. In fact, a simple search on the Internet garnered a wealth of recipes and ideas. So tousle, brush, rub, and pinch. Release the magic of the scented pelargonium, and discover a soothing, subtle, world of beauty and fragrance.

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