A Pelargonium Point of View

Pelargonium.  Pelargonium.  Pelargonium.  What a lovely and, sadly, underutilized name for an equally lovely plants species more commonly, if not incorrectly, known as “scented geranium.”   While related to geraniums, pelargoniums are in a class of their own and the scented cultivars come in a variety of fragrances: mint, rose, lemon, nutmeg, apricot, ginger, and more.  Just browse through your local nursery and gently rub the leaves to release the essential oils and determine which ones tickles your fancy, er…nose. 

The flowers of Orange Fizz are quite beautiful and, when rubbed, the leaves smell even more citrusy and lemony than those of the lemon pelargonium!  Note the asymmetrical flowers, a distinguishing characteristic that separates pelargoniums from geraniums.

Scented pelargoniums are put to use in recipes both culinary, such as this recipe for Quince Jelly with lemon pelargonium leaves, and cosmetic as in this recipe for Bath Vinegar: 2 oz rosemary, 2 oz rose petals, 2 oz lavender, 2 oz mint, 2 oz rose geranium leaves, 6 cups apple cider or white vinegar, 1 cup rose-water. Mix herbs and flowers together; add vinegar. Bottle and steep in refrigerator for 3-6 weeks. Strain and rebottle. Add a few fresh herb sprigs and the rose-water. Or, just crush a few leaves and add to a hot steeping bath!

For a delightfully easy flavored and scented sugar to enhance teas and recipes, layer your choice of clean, scented pelargonium leaves between layers of sugar and store in an airtight jar for a week before using.  I used the finer castor sugar with two complimentary pelargonium varieties, Lemon and Orange Fizz.  Heavenly!

Layer scented pelargonium leaves and sugar to add flavor and fragrance to your teas and recipes.

Another easy use is to add a few scented leaves to the end of a drier cycle when clothes are hot and the leaves can tumble and transfer their fragrance.  I think the Victorians had the right idea, however, by lining walkways with scented pelargoniums and herbs such as lavender so that when full skirts brushed by, essential oils would be released into the air, imparting their heady fragrance to passersby.   

And while today’s hemlines don’t accommodate such a romantic notion, what could be easier than to plant of pot of your favorite pelargoniums on a patio table so that you can absentmindedly touch their leaves and smell their hidden gifts on a sunny, daydreamy day? 

A Pot o’ Pelargoniums. Left to right: Lemon, Rose Geranium, and Orange Fizz.

Besides having different names, here are some others ways to distinguish a geranium from a pelargonium:

Flowers True geraniums, known as cranesbill in reference to the shape of their fruit, have symmetrical flowers with ten fertile stamens. Pelargoniums, on the other hand, have bilaterally symmetrical flowers with up to seven of the ten stamens fertile. 
Seeds  Geraniums fling their seeds away while Pelargonium seeds float away on the breeze and usually have a ‘feathered ‘ end that Geraniums don’t have.
Perennial vs. Annual  Pelargoniums are tender perennials, usually planted as annuals, and occur naturally almost entirely within South Africa.  Geraniums are perennials that come back each year.
Leaves  Those of true geraniums are usually deeply divided and cut while those of most groups of pelargoniums are not.  Scented pelargoniums are the exception, with leaves that are often deeply dissected and pubescent (fuzzy) which helps them to beat the heat.
Growth Habit  Pelargoniums have rather thick, succulent stems, originating as they do from typically more mounding in form with many slender stems arising from a central core, and fibrous roots.

And lest we lapse in remembering to call the pelargonium by its correct name, consider this point of view penned by Pelargonium Poet Laureate and flower hobbyist/hybridizer Cliff Blackman:

Ode from a Peeved Pelargonium

I am a Pelargonium–it truly is my name.

Please don’t call me geranium–it’s really not the same.

My tribe has many species and lot’s of cultivars, too,

with flowers that are zygomorphic (this seems to be known by few).

I have an adnate nectar tube–a quite distinctive feature–

to entice the bees to my flower as this ensures my future.

 

With a nature that is so friendly and with humans to assist,

my ability to hybridize has been impossible to resist.

I sometimes cross quite easily from the ones that you select,

creating lovely hybrids–those ones you must collect.

 

I have branched to many subgroups which include the popular four:

namely regal, zonal, ivy and angel but there are also many more.

So if you grow my offspring that descend from me,

I am a Pelargonium!  Please use this name for me.

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