Growing Scented Pelargoniums in Containers

Scented geraniums and containers are made for each other

| February/March 1996

DIY: Hybridizing Scented Pelargoniums 

Scented geraniums are admirable in so many ways. We can step back and view them within the intricate tapestry of a garden or move forward to explore the smaller secrets held in their elemental fragrances, shapes, colors, and textures. Unlike most garden plants, their fragrances come not from transitory blossoms but may be summoned from the leaves any day of the year (or appreciated in potpourris, cosmetics, and bouquets). Some varieties also have a place in the kitchen, flavoring jellies and cakes.

Popularly known as scented geraniums, these plants are actually scented pelargoniums. Like the common garden geraniums, they belong to the genus Pelargonium. The generic name, from the Greek pelargos, “stork”, comes from the notion that the long, narrow seed capsule resembled a stork’s bill. Storksbill is also an old common name. Pelargoniums belong to the geranium family (Geraniaceae), as does the genus Geranium, which includes cranesbills and herb Robert.

There are some 250 naturally occurring species of Pelargonium, most native to South Africa. Many have highly scented leaves, which are a natural deterrent against grazing animals, but only a few are the scented pelargoniums of gardens. The ease of hybridization, which has led growers to develop countless cultivars of scenteds, has resulted in nursery plant lists of more than 100 scented varieties, but only a few of these are true species. Among the best known of these are Apple (P. odoratissimum), Coconut (P. grossularioides), lemon (P. crispum and P. citronellum), rose (P. graveolens and P. capitatum), and the refreshing Peppermint (P. tomentosum).

The scent is contained in small beads of oil produced in glands at the base of tiny leaf hairs. Bruising or crushing a leaf breaks the beads and releases their fragrance. A few varieties need but a casual brushing to produce a ­noticeable fragrance. Some have an easily identifiable fragrance, such as lemon, peppermint, orange, or rose, whereas others may smell like cinnamon to one person and citrus to someone else. Others have only a green-leaf scent.

The leaves of scented pelargoniums vary in shape, size, color, and texture. They range in length from 1/2 inch to more than 6 inches. Some are almost circular, others lobed to varying degrees; still others are as finely divided as a fern frond. The most common leaf color is medium green, but leaves may also be deeper green or even grayish or silvery in tone. Some leaves are splashed or edged with white, cream, or yellow. Purplish brown may blotch leaf centers or color their veins and midribs. Leaf textures can be smooth, rough and raspy, hairy, or soft and velvety.

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