Gardening should be fun and bring joy to our lives. That is why I am always happy to discover a new group of plants that thrive in our climate, grow beautifully without a lot of fuss, and that don’t attract the attention hungry deer looking for the salad bar. Allow me to share one of my favorites….
There are few plants so fragrant that a mere brush of their leaves releases a scent evocative of long forgotten memories; a plant whose leaves are far more fragrant than its flowers. Include these versatile scented geraniums in a sensory garden where their velvety leaves may be stroked, their healing aromas inhaled, and their odd geometries contemplated.
Originally native to South Africa, scented Pelargoniums comprise a group of species and cultivars within the larger Pelargonium genus, which also includes traditional favorites like ivy leaf geraniums, Pelargonium peltatum, and zonal geraniums, Pelargonium × hortorum. There are over 250 species within the Pelargonium genus, and many more hybrids and cultivars. While these also have a strong scent and strong resistance to grazers, they don’t have the distinctive foliage and the intriguing variety of herbal fragrances of the ‘scented’ geranium species.
English and Dutch sailors began collecting Pelargoniums in the 17th and early 18th centuries, bringing them back to Europe and ‘the colonies’ for propagation and sale to avid gardeners. There are varieties known to have been cultivated in Virginia during the colonial period.
You may be familiar with the heavily promoted ‘Citronella’ Pelargonium citrosa, often sold to help ward off mosquitoes. The essential oils in any of the scented species may be rubbed on the skin or clothing as an insect repellent. (Try a small patch first to make sure you don’t have an unpleasant reaction to the oil on your skin.) In addition to the lemon scented plants, you may also find lime, orange and grapefruit scented geraniums of this species. Some gardeners plant these around their patio or near their door to discourage biting insects.
Rose scented geraniums, Pelargonium graveolens and P. capitatum, remain some of my favorites. They usually have pink flowers, and you will find a wide variety of leaf shapes and colors among the different cultivars. Many of these leaves are lacy and deeply cut, some are ruffled, some may be variegated with cream edges, or even slightly grey. A particularly treasured cultivar, Pelargonium graveolens variegata ‘Lady Plymouth’ has unusual, variegated leaves and pale pink flowers.
Chocolate mint scented geranium, Pelargonium tomentosum, is easily recognized by the dark ‘chocolate’ marking in the center of each leaf. Delight the chocoholic in your life with one of these unusual plants. Its fairly large, soft leaves are lovely whether the plant blooms, or not. This Pelargonium is softer than some species in this group and will cascade luxuriantly over the side of a pot. Some cultivars are more fragrant of mint than of chocolate.
There is an enticing variety of scented geraniums available from specialty growers, including ginger, pineapple, balsam, and many other fragrances. Check with growers that specialize in herbs locally, and find additional selections through online nurseries.
Pelargoniums bloom with dainty little tubular flowers in small clusters that attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Most bloom in shades of white, pink, lavender or red. Some cultivars bloom almost continuously while others bloom only occasionally. Regular feeding can produce more flowers, but too much fertilizer can also produce rampant vegetative growth. Moderation in all things, and regular pinching, produce the most attractive plants.
Grow scented geraniums in pots or hanging baskets singly, or in mixed plantings, or in beds and borders. Most will grow to 2’-3’ tall by late summer with a similar spread. They flourish in a variety of soil types, preferring neutral to slightly acidic soil. They are also reasonably drought tolerant once established. Grow them in full to partial sun, keeping the soil evenly moist when grown in full sun.
Like other Pelargoniums, scented geraniums will rarely be nibbled by a deer or rabbits. Their leaves have an unpleasant texture in the mouth and their leaves are too strongly scented with essential oils. Plant them with confidence that they will survive the season.
Pelargoniums are tender evergreen perennials. In their native areas, many grow into small, woody shrubs. Most are hardy in Zones 9-11 in their native South Africa or Australia. Here in coastal Virginia, they usually die back after a few frosts, unless brought indoors.
Whether they survive the winter depends on some combination of where their pot is overwintered, the type and size of the pot and the particular cultivar. Plants growing directly in a bed should be lifted and potted before the first frost to save them. When grown in a very sheltered spot, with good exposure, they may return if properly mulched. Give an overwintered plant plenty of time to exhibit new growth in late spring or early summer.
A potted rose scented geranium growing on my front porch, with a Southeastern exposure, continued blooming deep into the winter this past year. It overwintered in place, and a new flush of fresh leaves had grown by mid-April. It is now into its third summer. Potted geraniums may be kept as ‘house plants’ in a bright location. Cut back on watering and allow the plant to rest if overwintered indoors.
Most scented Pelargoniums are edible. Leaves or flowers may be used to decorate baked goods; dried and crumbled for tea or flavoring; or used to flavor sugar, butter, vinegar, or cooking oil. There are many recipes online to use the leaves in interesting ways. Gardeners also dry scented Pelargonium leaves for potpourri or to freshen closets and drawers.
Propagate Pelargoniums with stem cuttings. Methods vary, but most will root when a cutting is struck directly into potting soil or vermiculite. These are tough plants and forgiving plants, very easy to grow. Their beauty, fragrance and usefulness make them essential players in my summer garden.