Last winter was fairly mild here in Fort Worth. We had one or two brief cold snaps but they were not cold enough or long enough to seriously affect some of my tender perennials. One of the survivors was my ‘Snowflake’ rose-scented geranium (see photo above). It made it into spring without hardly losing any leaves. Granted, it was under the shelter of our side porch but this is the first time I remember any scented geraniums still hale and hearty above ground come April. And just look at those lovely pink blooms!
A Brief History
The first scented geraniums were discovered in South Africa around 1632 by John Tradescant the Younger, gardener to Charles I. Additional species were introduced to the general public in the late eighteenth century. The original half-dozen scented geraniums were quickly cross-bred, producing dozens of varieties with as many scents as you can imagine. Their delightful aroma and adaptability to growing in conservatories made them a favorite of Victorian ladies.
The popularity of scented geraniums took on a lucrative aspect when it was discovered that the oil from one species could be used as an inexpensive substitute for “attar of rose,” one of the most in-demand perfumes of its time. Soon British speculators were moving to South Africa, creating huge plantations to grow and distill this new source of wealth.
Scented geraniums had gained popularity in the United States by the 1830’s. One could find them in the parlor and on the porch steps. Besides enhancing the home atmosphere, ladies sometimes used their leaves in cakes and confections, although this never caught on as a mainstream flavoring.
Eventually scented geraniums became a victim of their own popularity. Their association with Victorian Era fussiness helped them to slip out of favor by the turn of the twentieth century. More spectacular flowering plants edged them out of the home. But herb enthusiasts, knowing that beauty is more than meets the eye, continued to make them a treasured member of the herb garden. Here’s a sampling of the ones you’re most likely to see in stores and catalogs:
Rose (P. capitatum) – This is the original geranium that started the eighteenth century craze for these herbs. It is the parent plant of nearly all rose pelargoniums.
- Nutmeg (P. x fragrans) – Also called “All Spice” or “Fringed Apple,” this has a silky textured leaf and a pleasant spicy aroma.
- Apple (P. odoratissimum) – This pelargonium with its fan-shaped leaves was a special favorite of the Victorians. This species is the parent of many of the more compact hybrids.
- Peppermint (P. tomentosum) – The large fuzzy leaves of this rambling pelargonium is a favorite of children. Give this variety lots of room in your garden.
- Gray Lady Plymouth (P. x asperum) – This rose-scented geranium has deeply cut leaves with a gray-green color. It’s one of my personal favorites.
- Rober’s Lemon Rose (P. graveolens) – An excellent potpourri herb, Rober’s grows vigorously, producing deep green leaves and a lovely lemon-rose fragrance.
- Citronella (P. x citronellum) – Its mosquito-repelling reputation make this the most popular scented geranium in the South. Citronella oil can be found in patio candles, insect repellent, and even dog collars. Enjoy the aroma but don’t expect it to repel many mosquitos. Studies suggest it’s not as effective as we have thought.
- Coconut (P. grossularioides) – The coconut variety has leaves with dark marking resembling a zonal geranium. Its compact trailing habit makes the coconut geranium a good choice for a hanging basket.
Geraniums – Winter Into Spring
All the geraniums – whether scented or ornamental – are tender perennials classified as succulents. Surprised? Think for a moment about the structure and feel of a jade plant or a houseleek. Then make a comparison between that and the fleshy, easily snapped stalks of geraniums and you’ll see why they are considered succulents.
This tenderness and vulnerability to freezing temperatures is the reason why geraniums are often treated as annuals and replanted each year. However I have learned by experience that with some care, geraniums can be successfully overwintered again and again. Even in regions with snow on the ground for months, if the root ball is properly mulched in fall you will often find new growth emerging in spring.
Getting back to my ‘Snowflake’ geranium. Here is a full-length portrait of the plant taken just last week. It is in full bloom with light pink blossoms that the bees positively adore. Once it finishes blooming I will cut it back to encourage leafy growth that can be harvested for the scented leaves. Then this fall I will bundle it up again to help it overwinter in the hopes of another spring and another blooming cycle. I’m lovin’ it!