Geraniums: What’s in a name?

vintage 1940s kitchen with three red geraniumsHere’s the third & final story in our geranium mini-series, written by reader-writer-gardener Marybeth. She writes:

Geraniums are geraniums, right? They come in lipstick hues and bloom like fools all summer. Think again, dear reader, you partly right. But, the name is the thing! What you know as a geranium is really classed as a pelargonium. But you have the color sense down pat. As you read this, I bet you flash on the range of white through pink to red and orange that these flowers come in: apple blossom pink, siren coral, electric watermelon, ruby red, salmon pink, purple-magenta, and more. And, I raise the ante: these darlings in your mind’s eye are potted in a simple serviceable terra cotta pot or set in threes in a white window box.

Classification Conundrum: your confusion is reasonable. Both Geranium and Pelargonium are genera in the plant family Geraniaceae. That Swedish father of botany, Linnaeus, originally included all these plant species in one genus, Geranium. Later, the French botanist L’Héritier separated them into the two genus categories that some British gardeners call “Pellies” and “Gerries.” But most gardeners then and now, apparently, did not get this name-change memo. Geraniums — especially the classic bright balled blooms we know and love — seem to do quite fine, however they are called. We will, here, generally call these familiar plants ‘geraniums.’ But, pardon me when the botanical correct ‘pelargonium’ works better.

Most of the geraniums in the plant trade after WWII were classed as Zonal Pelargoniums (Pelargonium x hortorum). Geranium-Pelargoniums are extremely popular evergreen perennials indigenous to Southern Africa but are typically grown as annuals in most Northern hemisphere gardens. Why so popular? In addition to the heavy bloom habit framed by attractive lily-padded leaves, geraniums are drought and heat tolerant. Happy in pots, window boxes, and in garden beds, geraniums yield bright color from May to September or the first frost, which ever comes first. Because these plants are so easy to propagate, nurseries were able to offer these plants cheaply and in great numbers when our thoughts first turned away from victory gardens to pleasure gardening.

Geraniums: Easy-Peasy Mid Century Modest Gesture

If you were to do one plant gesture to the 40s and 50s, a potted geranium would be the very ticket. Play “Spot-the-Geranium” on Pam’s many vintage kitchen images in her galleries.

Unlike the named roses discussed elsewhere on this blog, specific geranium varieties or cultivars from this era are not nearly as well documented. This means your quick quest is easy: simply pick up a plant in your favorite color and voila! You channel your grandmother’s kitchen tableau, with any plant.

What I am overwintering now, for me: salmon. What I helped my neighbor overwinter: violet. YOU?

Be-Safe-graphic2.3

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Comments

  1. says

    Great series, Marybeth! My mom grew many pelargoniums in mid century California: they are a fixture of my childhood garden memories. And I appreciate your light-handed but clear description of botanical vs. common names: so many people blanch when Latin names are mentioned, but they are indispensable for proper identification.

    • MbS says

      Embrace the Latin! Miss sunny CA at times. If you live in the Bay area, be sure to visit Annie’s Annuals — worth a pilgramage.

  2. Gavin Hastings says

    Thank you, Marybeth, for a great article. Very well done and I will pick “Geraniums” on my next appearance on “Jeopardy” (you’ll get a big cut of the winnings….)

    hey Pam, you tend to favor this illustration…and I like it too.

    What product was being advertised ? Every component of a Pyrex percolator is shown….yet, not as strongly as an actual ad ….. Hum ?????

    • MbS says

      Ann — did not know this. Will watch. My neighbor’s cats eat several of my mints…and chives! Gerbera daisies are lovely but hate the rain. Do you keep them on a covered patio or do you have dry summers?

  3. Nina462 says

    Thanks for the information. It was my first year with a geranium plant – and I just brought it in for the winter. Lets hope it survives 🙂

    • MbS says

      Good luck on this. I think you will be so pleased in the spring when the green knobs of emerging leaves present themselves.

  4. Jill says

    I’ve got a classic red one on my front porch…Left from the previous owner…whose husband built this house in 1950. I love that red, it reminds me of a scene in Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath”… red geranium petals floating like hearts in a puddle of brown mud.

    In SoCal we don’t have to overwinter our pellies, and I have some “Martha Washingtons” long ago planted with yellow cannas. Mad color.

    Just want to add a plug for the whole range of scented pelargoniums…most of which haven’t got the most spectacular flowers…but the scents of the leaves range form rose to ginger to apple to peppermint. The velvety green leaves of the peppermint geranium will tempt the unsuspecting to touch them…which of course releases a peppermint candy, knock-your-socks-off smell.

    In SoCal the rose scented “Lady Grey” geranium with bicolored leaves is fabulous planted with Lavender de Provence, for a scent garden.

    • MbS says

      Jill — fab information…I plan a small series for the Boss about scented pellies and the Martha Washington line….will look again for the flower quote in GoW. I lived in Central Ca for several years, very near where so many Oakies and Arkies ended up. Miss many of the lovely plants that adore a California winter. Bird of Paradise and needle leaved photocarpus…

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