a gardener fall in love with a plant? More than an
appreciation for how well ferns grow in the shade or the
color of Philippine violets, I mean the kind of love
that makes you want to meet the family, spend the rest
of your life learning all about it, and set up house.
For many, plant love results from a combination of looks
and connections. In my garden, these traits join with
the senses of smell and touch for a real
love-at-first-touch experience in scented geraniums.
These endearing, handsome plants, more accurately called
pelargoniums, are not known for showy flowers. But brush
the soft down of an intensely peppermint-scented
Pelargonium tomentosum against your cheek and you,
too, will experience their appeal. Scented geraniums
seduce us with strongly scented leaves in a wide variety
of shapes and textures. The sense of smell is one of the
most powerful and important of our senses. We can’t
taste much, if anything, without it; and scent affects
our emotions in powerful ways. So, it’s little wonder to
me that brushing against “scenteds,” as they’re fondly
called, can bring a flood of memories — those
connections I mentioned earlier. My introduction to
these wonderful plants came during my association with
Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay, those walking human
encyclopedias of all things herbal. And it is memories
of pleasant times spent working with and learning from
them that scented geraniums bring to my garden and heart
In their native habitats of south and east Africa and
southern Australia, pelargoniums adapt to vastly
different environments by slowly developing such traits
as bulb-like tuberous roots, tough wooded stems, stunted
or contorted growth, and, occasionally, spines. By
contrast, our domesticated plants have it fairly easy,
and we are rewarded with larger leaves and an endless
variety of cultivars.
Scented geraniums are not true geraniums, but, like
their namesake cousins, are easy to grow in most of
Texas. Cultivation in large containers is ideal. When
filled with well-draining soil rich in organic matter,
containers help prevent the overwatering that is deadly
to most varieties while retaining enough moisture for
the plant’s health. And, as not all pelargoniums have
the same sun requirements, you may prefer to grow them
in containers until you get a better sense of their
needs. Most can be grown in full sun, but you may find
P. tomentosum (the peppermint scented varieties),
P. odoratissimum (apple and apple-rose
varieties), and P. graveolens (rose varieties) do
best when grown with enough dappled shade to provide
relief from full mid-day sun.
Scenteds can be grown in the ground, but must be
protected from temperatures below the mid-30s. A favored
method is to combine container and in-ground techniques.
Sink the pot into the ground so it may be lifted and
moved to shelter when temperatures are expected to dip
I’ve grown scented geraniums in both acid (Houston) and
alkaline (Austin and Wimberley) areas of Texas. In
Houston and surrounding areas, they were planted
directly in the soil in raised beds with the protection
of row cover during the winter. There, the leaves on my
P. tomentosum grew to the size of dessert plates, easily
7 to 8 inches across. The varieties ‘Old Fashioned Rose’
and ‘Rober’s Lemon’ typically reached a height and
spread of 2-1/2 to 3 feet; and my nutmeg scented became
a thick blooming mass in its sphagnum moss lined hanging
basket. In Central Texas, I’ve found container growing
to be the most successful, with plants thriving nicely
but seldom reaching the sizes seen in my Houston garden.
As with most herbs, this family of plants will benefit
from frequent use. Most varieties have a leggy growth
habit and are bushier, healthier and more attractive
when cut back regularly to encourage new growth. It may
seem obvious to any reader of this magazine, but the
stems should be cut at an angle just above a leaf joint.
I laugh remembering the day Madalene found several
plants with leafless stems sticking out at all angles.
No, not caterpillars! Some of the newer herb farm
employees had been trimming off just the leaves for use
in the kitchen, leaving the poor naked stems on the
In addition to keeping them trimmed back, regular use of
your scenteds will help you find any unwelcome pests
before they become a problem. The good news is that few
pests stay long enough to be noticed. Just another
reason to love these plants! But if the occasional mealy
bug or whitefly does drop by, wipe it off with a bit of
alcohol on a cotton swab. Also check to see if the plant
is being stressed by under- or overwatering, poor
ventilation or by too much or too little sun. A healthy
pelargonium is rarely a target for pests other than
After overwintering in the greenhouse, my scenteds get a
good trim and are fed with a balanced fertilizer as they
move back out into the garden. This is a perfect time to
propagate, and the non-woody tip cuttings can be turned
into new plants. Make the cuttings 3 to 4 inches long
and strip off all but the top leaves. Propagation
success rates are usually higher when the cuttings are
allowed to “harden” before being placed in rooting mix.
I do this by preparing all the cuttings, then storing
them overnight in large zip-type plastic bags. The next
day, dip the cut ends into rooting hormone and shake off
any excess. Poke a hole in moistened planting medium
with a pencil or chopstick before inserting the cutting
to avoid scraping off the rooting hormone. Give them
lots of light but not direct sun, and keep slightly
moist but avoid overwatering. When rootlets and new
growth form, move your new little scenteds to the next
larger size pots and protect from full sun.
Remember that in Texas we really have two great growing
seasons. If you fail to take cuttings in the spring,
fall is your second chance. My friend Rachel Graham and
I visited Gabriel Valley Farms in November of 2008 and
found their stock plants being readied for propagation.
These cuttings will be the plants available in our local
nurseries as you read this article in the spring. They
and Nature’s Herbs of San Antonio are the wholesale
growers of many of the pelargoniums available in central
While you may be surprised to learn that pelargoniums
comprise an economically important group in the world of
commercial horticulture, local growers have seen retail
demand ebb and flow. Perhaps this is due to a lack of
information on the many uses for these plants. So we’ll
get to that in just a minute.
Scented geraniums come in so many varieties, it can be
difficult to keep track of them. When teaching how to
use these plants, I find it helpful to group them by
scent into five basic types:
Rose-scented (P. capitatum or P.
graveolens in varieties such as ‘Snowflake,’ ‘Attar
of Rose,’ ‘Rober’s Lemon Rose,’ ‘Dr. Livingstone,’ ‘Lady
Plymouth,’ ‘Candy Dancer,’ ‘Sweet Miriam’ and ‘Old
Mint-scented (P. tomentosum cultivars such
as ‘Godfrey’s Pride,’ ‘Peppermint’ and ‘Chocolate
Fruit-scented (lime, lemon, orange, strawberry,
coconut and ginger scents such as P. x
nervosum, P. crispum, P. x
scarborviae and P. grossularioides).
Spice- or pine-scented such as ‘Nutmeg’ or ‘Old
Spice’ (P. fragrans).
Pungent/“oakleaf” (P. quercifolium
cultivars such as ‘Fair Ellen’ or ‘Staghorn,’ and other
varieties such as ‘Concolor Lace,’ ‘Clorinda,’
‘Brunswick’ and ‘English Rosebud’).
There are varieties that challenge classification by
being strongly lemon, mint or spice scented, although
they are a P. graveolens (“rose”) cultivar. Some
pelargoniums have little or no scent but are prized
simply for their looks and fall by default into the
pungent group. These categories are broad strokes to
help guide enthusiasts in the use of these plants.
Scenteds have a variety of uses and a tradition of
culinary, cosmetic and medicinal applications dating
back to the late 1700s. Although I would rarely, if
ever, use the pungents in cooking, their attractive
leaves, delicate flowers and hardiness make them
wonderful additions to gardens. P. citrosa and
P. citronella are sometimes considered pungents,
marketed as “mosquito plants” or mosquito repellents.
You may be surprised when they fail to live up to that
claim. A wholesale grower recently told me that they
seem more effective in attracting mosquitoes, as great
clouds of the insects swarm out when the plants are
moved. Grow them instead for their citrus-tinged scents
and usefulness in flower arrangements and you will not
Leaves from the other four groups (rose, mint, fruit and
spicy) may all be used in a variety of ways. Notice I
put ginger scenteds in the fruit group. This is because
the leaves of that group tend to be smooth and shiny.
Most of the others have varying degrees of fuzziness on
the surface that may affect how you choose to use them.
The following ideas will help you get to know and enjoy
these delightful plants. Perhaps you’ll fall in love, as
Table Setting “Potpourri”
—Single large leaves under hot tea cups.
—Worked into flower arrangements.
—On serving dishes — under cold beverage glasses in
place of coasters, under fresh fruit on serving
platters, under dessert dishes in place of doilies and
as a simple but striking garnish for desserts and cheese
—Make an infusion using water, milk, fruit juice or
white wine. Gently warm the liquid and add slightly
crushed leaves and tender stems. Allow to steep at least
30 minutes or until fully flavored, strain out leaves
and use liquid to flavor fruit salads, sorbets, cake
glazes, jellies or custards.
—Make simple syrups. Measure equal parts granulated
sugar and water, bring to a full boil and stir until
sugar is dissolved. Steep lightly crushed leaves and
tender stems until the syrup is well scented, strain and
use the syrup like the infusions. Syrups may also be
used to moisten cake layers and to lightly scent and
sweeten fruit dishes or beverages.
—Bake sliced, firm fruit such as apples or pears in a
parchment packet. Place several clean leaves under the
fruit before sealing the packet and bake approximately
10 to 15 minutes in preheated 425ºF oven.
—Line cake and muffin tins. Lightly grease and flour
baking tin, line with scented geranium leaves, then pour
in batter and bake as directed in recipe.
—Mince tender leaves and add to delicately flavored
cakes or fruit salads. Consider whether an infusion
might be a better choice based on leaf texture.
—Scent granulated or confectioner’s sugar for use as a
baking ingredient or garnish on cookies and cakes. Layer
clean, dry leaves with sugar and store until well
scented before use.
—Candy leaves and flowers by painting with well-beaten
egg white and immediately coating with superfine
granulated sugar. Shake gently to remove excess sugar
and allow to dry thoroughly on a rack before using to
decorate cakes or as a garnish.
For more information and some great recipes, check out
the Web site of The Herb Society of America (www.herbsociety.org).
You’ll find a good collection of domestic pelargonium
www.hobbsfarm.com. And if you find you’re as truly
smitten as I am, you might even plan your next vacation
around a visit to South Africa to see pelargoniums
growing wild in their historic home and “meet the
family.” Whatever your next step, enjoy the journey
getting to know these wonderful plants.