If you’ve ever rubbed the fuzzy leaves of a peppermint scented geranium or built a bouquet skirted with the skeleton leaves of a rose scented geranium, you know the alluring fragrances and textures of some of this family of stalwart garden plants.
A pioneer nurserywoman named Mary Brooks touted fragrant-leaved geraniums as “unsurpassed for winter pot plants,” in 1881 in Kansas. Writing in her catalog, Price List of Greenhouse and Garden Plants Grown and For Sale at Oread Greenhouses, she listed her “full assortment,” which included rose, nutmeg, oak-leaved, rose-cut-leaved, lemon, variegated-leaved and apple.
Louise Beebe Wilder in The Fragrant Path, originally published in 1932, recommends collecting sweet scented geraniums, which are numerous and quite varied. “If we do not number a greenhouse among our possessions,” she writes demurely, “a few pots of sweet-leaved geraniums ranged along the window ledges of the living rooms will give pleasure. And if the taste is set down as Victorian, so is a good deal else that is comfortable and agreeable.”
Wilder always put a few rose geranium plants among her garden roses, too, and liked them in bouquets combined with roses or nasturtiums: “Tucked into the belt or through the buttonhole or carried in the hand on a warm day, it enlivens and refreshes one amazingly.”
Geraniums with large cut leaves make an effective “frill” for a bunch of sweet peas or stocks, or even a mixed bouquet. Other Wilder favorites included white pinks, lemon geranium and rose geranium, and mock orange.
Scented geraniums have held their popularity over many decades. In 1946, Helen Van Pelt Wilson wrote in her book Geraniums, Pelargoniums for Windows and Gardens, that “the scented-leaved geraniums are replete with charm. Not only have their admirers endowed many of them with particular meanings (in the language of flowers) but they are gracious in themselves with their modified leaf forms and tantalizing variety of scents.”
Today, these fragrant-leaved plants still charm us, and offer an easy way to reach across time: Many varieties of the same name continue to be sold today as were sold in Victorian times.
Scented geraniums are native to South Africa, especially around the Cape of Good Hope, and actually are related to pelargoniums, not geraniums. The differences between these two species could form the basis of a column entirely of their own, but we won’t get into that right now. The sweet-scented pelargoniums first began arriving in Europe late in the 1600s and came to this country in Colonial times. Besides being perfectly suited for bouquets, they’re also useful in sachets and potpourris and are used in cooking to flavor everything from apple jelly to cakes and butters.
Eleanour Sinclair Rohde gives a recipe for “sweet bags” in her early 1900’s book The Scented Garden. “Our great-grandmothers filled their sweet bags (which they hung on ‘wing’ arm-chairs) with lavender, sweet scented geranium leaves and verbena, and a more delicious mixture it would be difficult to find.”
You may want to take cuttings of mother plants you overwinter in your home or greenhouse, and use those fresh cuttings as summer annuals planted right in the ground. They’ll settle in and perform admirably in the hottest and driest of times. Some even grow recumbently and as a consequence, make a nice edging plant.
For plants, check your local greenhouses and nurseries: Many sell a selection as scenteds never seem to go completely out of style. Two of many excellent mail-order sources are Logee’s, 141 N. St., Danielson, CT 06239-1939, www.logees.com, and Davidson-Wilson Greenhouses, 3147 E. Ladoga Rd., Crawfordsville, IN 47933-9426, www.davidson-wilson.com.
Nancy Smith, managing editor of Mother Earth News magazine, writes and gardens at her farm in Leavenworth County, Kansas.