The 2006 Herb of the Year has a long history of delighting Western civilization with its unusual, delicious scents, surprising flavors and broad variety of cultivars. Our romance with pelargoniums began, appropriately, in a dramatic moment in history. When 15th-century Portuguese navigator Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, he shattered the boundaries of the Old World. The beginning of a period called the “Age of Discovery” — a time when exploration and knowledge of the physical world flourished — the world was suddenly turned upside down as Europeans traveled the globe, discovering new lands, civilizations, animals and plants. Plant explorers such as John Tradescant (circa 1570s to 1638), gardener to Charles I, brought many exotic plants home to the great houses of Britain, Spain and France.
Early in the 17th century, Tradescant returned to England with a South African native he called sweet Indian storksbill. What Tradescant thought was a variety of geranium was actually Pelargonium triste, the first pelargonium introduced to Western Europe. The new plant species delighted the royalty and upper classes and soon gained immense popularity as it spread across Europe.
A Case of Mistaken Identity
It wasn’t until 1789 that Tradescant and his contemporaries’ mistake was recognized, when French botanist Charles-Louis L’Héritier de Brutelle differentiated between the genera Geranium and Pelargonium within the Geraniaceae family. That early confusion has influenced these sweet-smelling plants into modern times — although they are recognized as two different plants, many people still call pelargoniums by their common name, scented geraniums. When they finally recognized it as its own genus, botanists named pelargoniums for the Greek word pelargos, meaning “stork,” because their seedpods resemble the bird’s beak.
Confusion and misnaming still are rife among the Pelargonium cultivars. Years of hybridizing, lost or inaccurate records and some growers’ habit of renaming plants for marketing purposes all have contributed to the problems. Labels are often inaccurate, so it is wise to consult a good reference book when purchasing pelargoniums (click here for a few recommendations).
Enchanting Throughout History
Native to southern Africa, pelargoniums flourish in a warm, often dry climate. The genus Pelargonium embraces some 250 species, with a wide range in leaf size and shape, growth habits, and flower color and scent. The plants’ distinct aromas are one of their most enchanting aspects — the leaves (and sometimes flowers) of the various cultivars boast the scents of rose, lemon, citrus, mint, fruit, nuts or spices.
These unique traits helped secure the early popularity of scented pelargoniums as they spread across England and the rest of Europe: Artists painted them; hostesses floated lemon-scented leaves in fingerbowls; housekeepers tossed them with fragrant herbs for both dry and wet potpourri; botanists experimented with hybrids; and cooks used them in jellies, sauces, cakes and puddings.
One of scented geraniums’ most popular commercial applications developed in the mid-1800s when the price of the rose oil used in the perfume industry climbed to unprecedented heights. The French discovered that they could match rose oil’s scent with essential oils distilled from various rose-scented pelargoniums, such as P. radens, P. graveolens and P. odoratissimum. Today, rose-scented geraniums’ essential oils still are used as a substitute for more expensive rose oil.
In aromatherapy, rose-scented pelargonium oil (commonly called geranium oil) offers a balancing, stabilizing effect. In skin creams, its slightly astringent property opens and cleans pores while its scent evokes a sense of calm and tranquility.
And although pelargoniums were enjoyed for their scents, beauty and flavor, it wasn’t until 1897 that Europeans learned of pelargoniums’ medicinal properties. Charles Stevens, an Englishman suffering from tuberculosis, traveled to South Africa seeking a cure. He found umckaloabo, a decoction made from the roots of two scented-leaf pelargoniums: P. sidoides and P. reniforme. South African cultures had been using umckaloabo for centuries to treat cough, upper respiratory tract irritations and gastrointestinal disorders. Stevens returned to England with it and sold the remedy as “Steven’s Consumption Cure.” Today, research has proven umckaloabo’s effectiveness in treating acute bronchitis, and it is being used successfully for that purpose.
With its broad range of uses, including diversity in the garden, kitchen and medicine cabinet, it’s no wonder that these multifaceted plants have kept us enamored throughout history. Embrace this herb’s celebrity status in 2006 and plant a few in the garden. Then, experiment with these fun flavors in the kitchen with our recipes. Even if you’re familiar with these pretty little plants, their wide variety ensures nearly anyone can find surprising new uses for them.
Cooking with Scented-Leaf Pelargoniums
Like the mockingbird of the herb world, the heady fragrances of pelargoniums — sharply lemon, tartly fruity, exploding rose or boldly spicy — mimic the classic scents of the kitchen. The reward in cooking with pelargoniums comes from an unexpected intensity of flavor, sometimes exotic, sometimes mysterious.
Grilled Salmon with Citrus-Ginger Sauce
Any of the lemon-scented pelargoniums (P. crispum, P. ‘Prince Rupert’, ‘Frensham’) are naturals for fish. This tangy sauce is very versatile. Use it with seafood, chicken or pork, or drizzle it over ice cream, pound cake or poached fruit.
- ¾ cup orange juice
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped lemon, lime or ginger-scented pelargonium leaves
- 1 tablespoon each fresh lemon juice, honey and chopped candied ginger
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped rosemary leaves
- 2 teaspoons grated orange rind, optional
- 1½ pounds salmon steaks or fillets
- In a large zip-top bag, combine all sauce ingredients. Add salmon and marinate for 15 to 20 minutes in the refrigerator.
- Remove fish from bag and grill on hot barbecue grill or under broiler for 7 minutes, or until flesh flakes easily with a fork and turns opaque.
- Meanwhile, pour sauce into a small saucepan, bring to a boil over medium-high heat and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes until thickened.
P. citronellum, P. ‘Frensham’,‘Lime’ or ‘Prince of Orange’ are all natural choices for chicken recipes. Tangy, with just the right amount of fresh flavor, this dish is tasty over stir-fried vegetables, rice or couscous.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 chicken breasts or 8 thighs (about 3 pounds)
- 1 large red pepper, cored and sliced
- 2 green onions, thinly sliced
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
- 1 can (10 ounces) chicken broth
- ¼ cup chopped dried apricots
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped lemon-scented pelargonium leaves
- 1 teaspoon grated lemon rind (optional)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- In a 1½-quart flameproof baking dish, heat oil on medium heat. Add chicken and brown on both sides. Reduce heat to medium-low and scatter pepper slices and onion over chicken.
- Cover and cook for 3 to 5 minutes without turning chicken.
- Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine lemon juice, chicken broth, apricots, lemon-scented leaves and lemon rind, if using. Pour over chicken and vegetables.
- Remove dish from heat, cover and bake in preheated oven for 35 minutes or until chicken is done.
The coconut milk lends a slightly sweet and creamy element and is a perfect match for the rose-scented leaves; use vegetable or chicken broth if coconut milk is not available.
- ½ cup water
- 1 can (14 ounces) coconut milk
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped rose-scented pelargonium leaves
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup jasmine or other long-grain rice
- In a medium saucepan, bring water and coconut milk to a boil over medium- high heat. Stir in pelargonium leaves, salt and rice.
- Cover, reduce heat and simmer 25 minutes or until liquid is absorbed.
- Remove from heat, let stand 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork and serve immediately.
Substitute your favorite fruits for the peaches and cherries in this recipe.
- 3 or 4 medium-sized P. ‘Rober’s Lemon Rose’ leaves
- ¾ cup sugar
- ¾ cup flour
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup milk
- 3 large eggs
- 2 tablespoons orange- or lemon-flavored liqueur
- ½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1½ cups sliced peaches
- 1½ cups pitted cherries
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 10-inch pie pan.
- In food processor or blender, blend pelargonium leaves and sugar; add flour and salt, pulse until well blended.
- In a small bowl, beat milk and eggs with a fork until well blended. Beat liqueur and vanilla into milk mixture.
- With motor running, slowly pour milk mixture into sugar mixture and keep blending until well mixed, about 30 seconds. Batter will be thin; pour into buttered pie plate and scatter fruit over. Bake 45 to 50 minutes or until clafouti is puffy and golden brown.