Scented Pelargonium Fragrances to Try

Choose Which Scent You Prefer from a Wide Variety of Rose-Scented Geraniums

| February/March 1998

  • Lace is the place for this appealing ‘Lady Plymouth’ rose-scented pelargonium.
  • Scented pelargoniums with appealing rose or lemon-rose scents include, clockwise from top left, ‘Charity’, ‘Attar of Roses’, ‘Peacock’, ‘Both’s Snowflake’, ‘Dr. Livingston’, ‘Charmay Snow Flurry’, ‘Crowfoot Rose’, ‘Rober’s Lemon Rose’, a Graveolens Group hybrid, ‘Lady Plymouth’, ‘Silver-Leaf Rose’, and ‘Grey Lady Plymouth’.
  • ‘Round-leaf Rose’, ‘Golden Snow’, ‘Atomic Snowflake’, and ‘Snowflake’.

• Rose Geranium Tea

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.

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