International Herb of Intrigue

Begin your own Age of Discovery with surprising, delightful pelargoniums, the International Herb Association’s 2006 Herb of the Year.

| June/July 2006

The 2006 Herb of the Year has a long history of delighting Western civilization with its unusual, delicious scentssurprising 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.

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