Herb to Know: Herb Robert

| April/May 1997

Geranium robertianum
• (jer-AY-nee-um ro-burr-tee-ANN-um)
• Family Geraniaceae
• Annual or biennial herb

This pert little European woodland geranium has a long history as a medicinal herb, is attractive and easy to grow, yet it is not seen in many U.S. herb gardens. Perhaps it just needs a little PR.

The genus Geranium contains some 300 species of annual and perennial herbs and subshrubs native to temperate areas around the world. (The scented geraniums beloved of herb gardeners and the popular windowbox geraniums actually belong to the genus Pelargonium.) The flowers have five sepals, five petals, ten stamens in two circles of five, and a five-parted pistil. The ovary when mature separates from the base into five parts, each containing a seed and each attached to a part of the long style, which curls upward. The style’s resemblance to a beak has given the genus the common name cranesbill (geranos is Greek for “crane”).

Herb Robert is an annual or bien­nial herb that is native to Europe, southern temperate Asia, and North Africa, and has naturalized in North and South America. In North America, it grows wild in rocky woods and along roadsides from Newfoundland to Manitoba and south to Maryland, West Virginia, Indiana, and Nebraska. It is often found in weedy areas on rock ledges.

Herb Robert forms a succulent rosette of basal leaves on reddish hairy, sticky, highly branched, sprawling or upright stems. The foliage also is hairy and may have a reddish tint or edging. Both the stems and leaves turn bright red in the fall. Opposite leaves up to 41/2 inches wide are palmately divided into three to five pinnately divided leaflets, giving them a dainty, fernlike look. The terminal leaflet is usually stalked. The leaves when bruised emit an odor generally described as disagreeable (or ­peculiar, bitter-aromatic, fetid, foxy, or evil)—except by Eleanour Sinclair Rohde, who called it “the most sweetly scented of all wild geraniums”. Half-inch-wide pinkish purple flowers with reddish sepals and orange or red ­anthers bloom in pairs in the upper leaf axils beginning in May and sometimes continuing into the winter in mild ­climates. They are sometimes ­pollinated by long-tongued insects but are usually self-pollinated. At maturity, the fruit’s long, pointed beak suddenly splits from the base, ejecting the dark brown, finely wrinkled or pitted seeds outward, sometimes for ­several feet.

White-flowered cultivars include ‘Album’, with a trailing habit, red-brown leaves and stems, and large flowers; and ‘Celtic White’ a dwarf form with small flowers. ‘Album’, at least, seems to come true from seed.

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