Cheerful, Floriferous & Fascinating: the Family Geraniaceae

One of the first plants I remember knowing and loving as a child was a scented-leaf geranium. As little girls, my sisters and I were privileged to attend “fancy, grown-up” dinner parties at the home of a great aunt and uncle who lived outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Featured at such dinners were finger bowls in which were floated the leaves from my aunt and uncle’s collection of potted scented-leaf geraniums. Rubbing the leaves between our fingers, we girls were delighted by the lemon or rose fragrance that magically perfumed our fingers from the soft, sometimes fuzzy, textural leaves. Photo: The bold beautiful abundance of a P. ‘Angel’s Star’ in bloom in the greenhouse of Geraniaceae.

The myriad varieties, forms and fragrances of scented-leaf geraniums are just some of the members of the genus pelargonium. Pelargonium is just one of the genera in the amazingly diverse and lovely Geranium family of plants – formally known as Geraniaceae. And if you have a question about plants in the Geranium family, your best bet is to turn to Robin Parer – affectionately known in gardening and horticultural circles as The Geranium Lady. I had the great pleasure of visiting with Robin recently as I toured her nursery sites, smelling evocative fuzzy pelargonium leaves, ohhing and ahhhing over the clear colors of geranium blooms in display borders, and marveling at the many sizes and shapes of interesting forms throughout the family. Photo: Pelargonium ‘Pomona’.

Robin Parer is a bright, keen-eyed, Australian-accented plantswoman who feels strongly about the importance and significance of the Geranium family. She has spent her life’s work in large part working to ensure the continuation of many species and cultivars within the Geranium family. She has worked to protect a wide range of the plants – from rare and endangered members of the family to historical cultivars of once common, Martha Washingtons/Regal geraniums of window box and container garden fame. For the past almost thirty years, Robin and her nursery, aptly named Geraniaceae, has collected, documented and propagated more plants in the Geranium family than you or I ever even knew existed, let alone knew belonged to the same family. Robin was born and raised in Australia, and it was as a girl that she first fell in love with scented-leaf pelargoniums – “Like a lot of people, I think,” Robin reminisced when we spoke, “Didn’t everyone’s grannie grow them?” Photo: Robin Parer among her pelargoniums.

But, she assures us, the “Geranium family is so much more diverse than your granny’s red geraniums. There are blue hardy geraniums for the perennial border. There are scented pelargoniums for kitchen and bathroom, a cornucopia of Martha Washingtons, fancy- leaf, angel and pansy-face, and weird and wonderful pelargonium species for pots indoors or out, and there are erodiums for containers and rock gardens.” Photo: Pelargonium sp. 2660 MV from Citrusdal, South Africa.

The Geranium family is an expansive one with multiple genera and plus or minus 750 species according to the Jepson Manual. The family is dominated, however, by the three or four larger genera of the family: Pelargonium, which many of us were brought up calling geranium; Geranium, which many of us know as hardy, true or cranesbill geranium; Erodium, which includes the non-native Filaree that carpets our grasslands with pink flowers making some of us think of the entire genus as just weedy; and Monsonia, which is primarily known and grown by collectors of the geranium family. All plants in the Geranium family have five true flower petals. Photo: A hardy native G. richardsonii in wooded dappled light; below: a delicate P. trifidum in the Geraniaceae greenhouse.

Robin moved to the United States as a young adult with her also-Australian husband and they settled in Marin County where Robin found good growing conditions for a great many plants – her beloved geraniums included. On a visit to England as an adult, she discovered a passion for hardy geraniums and became aware of the serious lack of them available in the trade, especially in the US. Since then, Robin herself has collected specimens from the Geranium family in the field and from other growers. She has intrepidly collected “at 14,000 feet in Peru, where they were being eaten by llamas, as well as down in the crater of a Hawaiian volcano and in a leech-filled swamp in Australia,” according to a New York Times article in 1992. Her collection is now probably the largest and most complete in the US. Photos: Above, the rich pink of a Geranium sanguineum growing beneath unwatered blue oaks in a Northern California home garden; below: Hardy geraniums are just that, hardy, and can withstand often very low temperatures. Here, the textural design of frost on the silvery leaf of a G. harveyi.

Since she first launched her nursery in the early 1980s, the business has grown considerably. Having started with the hardy geranium nursery and display gardens in Kentfield, CA, it now also consists of an extensive greenhouse especially for the often tender pelargoniums, including a collection of rare and endangered species as well as many many scented-leaf varieties, located in Richmond, CA. Both sites are open by appointment only. While Robin put out a specialty catalogue from 1983 – 2009, now all of her plant offerings can be found on her website, Geraniaceae.com, which is loaded with information and many photographs. The tens of thousands of plants Robin, with the help of three part-to-full-time staff, sends out into the world each year find homes with home gardeners, wholesale buyers, in public and botanic gardens around the world, and even in research laboratories. The day I visited, a section of the pelargonium greenhouse was set aside for plants being sent to a USDA research institute looking into the strengths and benefits of the chemical compounds in the flowers of various pelargonium species. Photo: Pelargoniums in bloom.

“It’s important to keep growing these plants and getting them out into the world so that they stay in cultivation,” Robin states passionately. “Getting more people interested in the Geranium family is really the only way we’re going to save them in all their diversity.” In a presentation she gave earlier this year for Pacific Horticulture, Robin elaborated on this point: “The Geranium family is large and contains many beautiful members. But economic pressures on nurseries, the fads and foibles of the plant buying public, as well as habitat loss are bringing some members [whether species in the wild or cultivars in the horticultural trade] of the family to the point of extinction. It is estimated that over 10,000 named cultivars of pelargoniums have been lost in the last 150 years. Some cultivated forms of hardy geraniums are going the same way.” Photos: Above: P. ochroleucum; below: a variety of P. schizopetalum.

Robin lectures frequently to garden groups and societies throughout the United States. She is a regular – and award winning – participant at the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show and she has been awarded an Annual Award from The California Horticultural Society for Outstanding and Meritorious Contributions to Horticulture in California. If you have the chance to hear her present – take it. When she walked me through her greenhouses and nursery gardens, she had a story for almost every plant she introduced me to – – some stories were personal anecdotes, others horticultural history, some a combination of both. “This plant,” she said referring to P. ‘ellaphiae’ was named for South African botanical artist Johanna Ellaphie Ward-Hilhorst who was murdered, this one [referring to P. cotyledonis] is found on the island of St. Helena where Napoleon was exiled – think, Napoleon might have walked among these plants, Robin mused. Photos: Above: P. ‘ellaphiae’; below: The succulent stem of P. cotyledonis ‘Ventnor’.

She stresses firmly the part that home gardeners can play in helping to perpetuate the family’s diversity. “After a presentation I gave to the docents at Markham Nature Park and Arboretum in Concord, CA, one woman came up to me and said ‘I am glad to help. I am going to begin collection, propagating and selling as many varieties of fancy leaf pelargoniums as I can.’ I was delighted! So I am going to be like dripping water on a stone and get gardeners to each take on a bit of responsibility for this family that gardener’s love,” Robin laughed. Photos: Geraniums under shade cloth at the nursery. Full summer sun can burn them, and dappled shade in the valley summer’s is recommended; below: dramatic magenta veination on one hardy geranium at Geraniaceae x oxonianum.

When asked about the important characteristics for home gardeners to keep in mind about the primary genera in the Geranium family, Robin responded, with some wry humor about the technicalities of keying out different genera and species: “I think we’ll keep the differences between the genera in Geraniaceae as simple as possible and we won’t have people counting stamens!”

Photo: A electric pink P. ‘Carmen’ above and a pansy face P. ‘Kensington’.

Photo: P. luridum.

Below, Robin discusses briefly each of the five largest genera in the Geranium family:

Geraniums. These are not what most gardeners call “geraniums”. They are sometimes known as cranesbills. Most geraniums are herbaceous perennials and grow during spring, summer and fall and then die down in the winter.

They are called cranesbills because the seed beak was thought to resemble the beak of a crane. The flower has five regular sized petals with 10 fertile stamens. They are found all over the world except Antartica.

Hardy geraniums come in colors of pink, white, blue, purple and magenta. Favorite plants: Geranium ‘Rozanne’, and Geranium sanguineum ‘Elke.'”

Photos: Above: G. ‘Rozanne’; at right: the architectural form of a geranium seed ‘beak’ having projected its seed into the world.

California has several native hardy geraniums, Robin notes including G. californicum found in the southern Sierra, G. oreganum found in the Siskiyous, and Geranium richardsonii, whose nearest relatives are a very strange group of geraniums found in Hawaii, many on the island of Maui.” (I told you she was full of fascinating Geranium information.)

Photo: A native hardy G. viscosissimum.

“Erodiums. Called erodiums, again named after the beak of a bird, this time the heron. They are usually small perennial mounds the roots of which look at little like your forearm, with the leafy mound above ground looking like your hand, and the stems that hold the flowers look a little like your fingers. Erodiums are found mainly around the Mediterranean, but we have two erodium in California, E. texanum and E. macrophyllum. E. texanum is found in the deserts of Southern California and E. macrophyllum is in grasslands and coastal areas. Erodium have small flowers that are extravagently colored in the upper petals: the flower colors are pink, yellow, white, magenta and lavender blue with purple, grey, black, cherry and pink blotches and veins. They have five regular size petals and five fertile stamens. Favorite plants: Erodium ‘Stephanie’, E. ‘Las Meninas’, E. reichardii ‘Album'” As noted earlier, Robin recommends erodium (which are often quite small plants) as best grown in containers (troughs) or rock gardens. Photo: A double flowered and diminutive Erodium reichardii ‘Florepleno’, great for rock gardens or trough gardens.

Photo: A potted E. ‘Pickering Pink’.

Monsonia. Monsonias were named after Lady Anne Monson, a friend of Linnaeus. There are a very small number in cultivation. They are found in Africa and India. The flowers have regular sized petals and there are 15 fertile stamens. They are yellow, white, pink and lavender blue. Favorite plant: Monsonia speciosum Sarcocaulons are a subgroup of the Monsonias, and their name means fleshy stems. They sometimes appear in collections of succulents. Some of them have spiny stems. The flower colors are pink, yellow, red, white. Sarcocaulon crassicaule is the easiest to grow.”

Pelargoniums. Gardeners have called this group “geraniums” for over 200 years. The seed beak is supposed to resemble the beak of a stork. Most occur in Southern Africa, but there are also a few in Australia and islands in the Indian Ocean and one, P. cotyledonis, on the Island of St. Helena in the Atlantic Ocean. The flowers are really different from geraniums, in that the upper two petals are a different size from the three lower petals and most importantly there is a nectar tube fused to the stem of the flower. You can see it as a little bump. Pelargoniums have seven out of 10 fertile stamens. Literally thousands of cultivated varieties of Pelargoniums have been produced over the last 150 years. They come in colors of pink, red, white, yellow, purple, magenta and orange. [These include the common red-zonal geraniums, ivy geraniums used in hanging baskets, Regal/Martha Washingtons and the scented-leaf geraniums.] Best scented leaf: Pelargonium citronellum; Best angel/pansy face is Pelargonium ‘Charmay Electo’; best Regal/Martha Washington is P. ‘Verity Pallas’.Photos: Above: P. ‘Frensham’ bearing quintessentially refreshing leaves of lemon-scent; below: A more petite pelargonium than many, this one, P. fragrans ‘Robinaeflora’, is named in honor of Robin Parer and has fresh, lightly scented leaves and delicate flowers.

Robin is careful to note that her “best plants” recommendations “are valid for this week only. With 900 taxa, I change my mind frequently.” Photo: P. x glaucifolium.

With so many cheerful, fragrant, floriferous and fascinating choices from the geranium family for our own gardens, it’s no wonder. Which to start with…?

Follow Jewellgarden.com/In a North State Garden on Facebook – become a fan today! Photos: Above: the deep magenta flowers of P. sidoides, a good border plant in the North State Garden. It bears long stems with tiny flowers accenting the tips, and the mounding silver-grey leaves are striking in full or part sun; below: a cheerful little pansy face P. ‘Ainsdale Angel’.

To submit plant/gardening related events/classes to the Jewellgarden.com on-line Calendar of Regional Gardening Events, send the pertinent information to me at: Jennifer@jewellgarden.com

Did you know I send out a weekly email with information about upcoming topics and gardening related events in the North State region? If you would like to be added to the mailing list, send an email to Jennifer@jewellgarden.com.

In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California. It is made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell

Jennifer Jewell

In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.

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