Begin your own Age of Discovery with surprising, delightful pelargoniums, the International Herb Association’s 2006 Herb of the Year.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Substitute your favorite fruits for the peaches and cherries in this recipe.
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