I can evoke the scent of summer roses by brushing the leaves of ‘Attar of Roses,’ one of the rose-scented pelargoniums I raise at my nursery and overwinter in the greenhouse. Its fragrance, true to its name, is wonderfully suggestive of roses and lifts my spirits when the weather is cold and rainy and spring seems far off.
The first scented pelargoniums (better known in this country as scented geraniums) were brought to Europe from their native South Africa in the seventeenth century. The Europeans were amazed how the leaves smelled of lime, lemon, mint, and other quite unrelated plants, and they began using them in potpourris. Perfumers soon recognized the potential of rose-scented pelargoniums as a cheap substitute for the more costly attar of roses, or rose oil, the fragrant essential oil distilled from rose petals. Scented pelargoniums are still grown commercially for their oil (called geranium oil in the trade) in France, Egypt, Italy, India, Algeria, the former Soviet Union, and the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean.
Choosing a rose scent
Geranium oil and rose oil share some primary constituents, notably geraniol and citronellol, but they aren’t identical. Even among the pelargoniums classified as rose-scented, some smell more roselike than others due to their chemical makeup. Some have a lemon-rose fragrance, and a few aren’t rose-scented at all even though they have “rose” in their name. These include the pungent-scented ‘Red-Flowered Rose’ and ‘Shrubland Rose,’ ‘Mint-Scented Rose,’ and ‘Camphor Rose.’ Other varieties have been erroneously described as rose-scented or aren’t consistently rose-scented. All of the rose-scenteds recommended below have a well-developed rose or lemon-rose fragrance.
Rose-scenteds offer more than fragrance. Seeing their diversity of leaf silhouettes in a reference book is what gave me an uncontrollable desire to collect all the rose-scented varieties. Small but perky flowers in spring make these attractive plants even more eye-catching.
Rose-scenteds, like other pelargoniums, occasionally produce a genetic mutation in a growing shoot. The mutated branch, called a sport, may have leaves of a different color, size, or shape from those of the rest of the plant. Variations in the foliage are common. If a sport can be successfully propagated by cuttings or tissue culture and is different from any other existing plant, it can be introduced as a new cultivar. Such mutations are often unstable, however, and new shoots that arise from a growing sport may revert to the appearance of the parent plant.
The growth habit of rose-scenteds may be upright or sprawling, rangy or compact. Some varieties do well in pots, while others need a large tub or a garden bed to look their best. Many sprawlers look good in hanging baskets or grown on a trellis.
Scented pelargoniums can be grown outdoors year-round only in frost-free regions. In cooler climates, these tender perennials may be grown as annuals or wintered in pots indoors, where their fragrance and beauty are much appreciated. A south-facing windowsill that receives at least four hours of direct sunlight is adequate; a heated sunporch or greenhouse is ideal.
A potpourri of rose-scenteds
The Graveolens Group contains some of the best-known and most roselike of the rose-scented pelargoniums, but its nomenclature is confused. “Old-fashioned rose” is a name used by pelargonium fanciers and growers to refer to a jumble of look-alikes.
Assigned to the species Pelargonium graveolens since 1792, they are now considered to be hybrids of P. radens and P. capitatum; one carries the cultivar name ‘Graveolens’. Neither this cultivar nor ‘Rosé,’ the cultivar grown for commercial oil production on Réunion, seems to be available in the United States, but they are probably similar to the many well-scented strains that are grown here. I recommend you look and sniff before you buy. Different growers are likely to have different strains. As for the true P. graveolens, it has more deeply divided leaves than the hybrid, white rather than lavender flowers, and a slightly minty scent.
Worthwhile cultivars in this group include ‘Lady Plymouth’ with gray-green leaves edged and splotched with white, ‘Grey Lady Plymouth’ with a finer white edging, and ‘Silver-Leaf Rose’ with a silvery cast and an even finer white edging. All have a nice rose scent. A recent introduction, ‘Charity,’ has large green leaves with a wide gold edging and a lemon-rose scent.
Except for ‘Charity,’ which is too robust for a small container, most of plants in the Graveolens Group do well in pots, though they will be larger and more productive in a large tub or garden bed.
‘Attar of Roses’
The word “attar” is derived from the Persian word for “strongly perfumed,” and ‘Attar of Roses’ aptly describes this cultivar’s strong rose scent. It is a fairly large plant with three-lobed leaves and small lavender flowers. It is always a favorite for sachets and potpourri.
‘Both’s Snowflake’ and ‘Peacock’
Though introduced decades and continents apart, ‘Both’s Snowflake’ from Australia in the 1950s and ‘Peacock’ from the United States twenty years later, both have a lemon-rose scent and deeply divided lobed leaves irregularly variegated in cream and white. ‘Peacock’ is stouter and more upright, and its leaves are a bit more deeply divided and ruffled on the edges. Both do well in containers.
‘Dr. Livingston’ (‘Skeleton Leaf Rose’)
The deeply divided leaves of ‘Dr. Livingston’ have a raspy texture and a strong lemon-rose scent. Tall and rangy, it is well suited as a background specimen.
This fairly new cultivar has deeply cut leaves and a nice lemon-rose scent. Its leaves are like those of ‘Dr. Livingston’, but it is much more compact, making it a better choice for growing in pots.
‘Charmay Snow Flurry’
This recent introduction from Australia with white stems and large, three-lobed leaves heavily variegated with cream and white really stands out when planted with other pelargoniums. The variegation is more consistent than that of either ‘Both’s Snowflake’ or ‘Peacock’. It has a lemon-rose scent.
The deeply cut leaves of this cultivar (reminiscent of a crow’s feet) have a velvety texture and a lemon-rose scent. It bears a profusion of small lavender flowers and is attractive in containers but needs periodic pruning to prevent floppiness.
‘Rober’s Lemon Rose’
This cultivar has been called the “tomato geranium” in reference to the unusual shape of its leaves. It is a large, vigorous, upright grower with a lemon-rose scent.
‘Round-Leaf Rose’ and friends
‘Round-Leaf Rose’ is a sprawling plant that looks great in a large tub or hanging basket. Its soft green, ruffled leaves have shallow lobes and a lemon-rose scent. Sports include ‘Snowflake’ with a hit-or-miss white variegation, ‘Atomic Snowflake’ (a sport of ‘Snowflake’) with golden, slightly distorted leaf edging, and ‘Golden Snowflake’ (‘Variegated Giant Rose’) with a golden hit-or-miss pattern.
Jim Becker and his wife, Dotti, grow more than seventy-five kinds of scented pelargoniums at Goodwin Creek Gardens in Williams, Oregon. He is the author of An Everlasting Garden (Interweave Press, 1994) and coauthor with Faye Brawner of Scented Geraniums (Interweave Press, 1996).