|By Vicki Blachman
hat makes 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 years later.
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 below freezing.
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 plants!
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 hungry deer.
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 Texas.
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 Fashioned Rose’).
Mint-scented (P. tomentosum cultivars such as ‘Godfrey’s Pride,’ ‘Peppermint’ and ‘Chocolate Mint’).
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 be disappointed.
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 I have.
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 trays.
—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 photos at 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.