At the beginning of the 19th century, the geranium was a novel and beloved plant. Thomas Jefferson took some to the White House. By the end of the century, people were sick of it.
William Morris, the design genius who elevated the marigold — the marigold — to patterned perfection, found the geranium proof that "even flowers can be thoroughly ugly," writes Kasia Boddy in Geranium, a new cultural history of the flower.
Today, the geranium is still disdained by horticultural mavens, yet some 150 million plants are sold each year to folks who rely on that splash of scarlet (or pink, white or salmon) to decorate their summer yards, patios and hanging baskets. Can so many people be so wrong?
My highfalutin gardening buddies might think I've been sniffing the citronella, but I think geraniums are OK. They just need to be used with restraint — don't line the front walk with them — and given a little more TLC than most get.
The same stiffness that some find vulgar gives the annual an architectural quality. The classic type stands up well to the heat of summer, and the blooms appear all season long to attract butterflies and hummingbirds.
If you are not convinced, there is a new reason to like this plant urchin: The breeders who work on annuals have made a major breakthrough in recent years with a new class of geranium (or pelargonium, if you are a purist) that will provide new forms and colors plus better performance by crossing ivy-leafed geraniums with zonal types.
These novel "interspecific" geraniums "perform spectacularly well in all sorts of terrible weather stress," said Allan Armitage, a floriculture expert at the University of Georgia.
Zonal geraniums are the classic stubby, large-leafed plants with darker zone markings on the foliage and large flower clusters on long stalks. Ivy-leafed varieties are compact trailers that smother themselves in blooms, making them a favorite for hanging baskets and window boxes.
Interspecifics combine the heat tolerance of zonal geraniums with the superior performance (and in some varieties, the look) of ivy-leafed geraniums. The "ivies" preen and strut in places like California and Switzerland, but the heat and humidity of other regions are not kind to them. Once night temperatures rise to the low 70s, geraniums flower grudgingly if at all and generally go downhill.
The new hybrids overcome this problem, giving gardeners healthier-looking geraniums with as many as a third more blooms than zonals.
Since Goldsmith Seeds introduced the first hybrid seven years ago, others have been scrambling to produce their own. Goldsmith, based in Gilroy, Calif., was later acquired by Syngenta Flowers. The hybrids are now widely available at garden centers and mass merchandisers — look for "interspecific" on the label — and more are on the way.
The inventor is hybridizer Mitch Hanes, who has been breeding new geraniums since 1987. Others had crossed zonal and ivy-leafed geraniums before, but the resulting seedlings were inherently feeble. His introductions were the product of a lot of genetic refining through additional cross-breeding, he said.
His Caliente line was introduced to consumers in 2006, the Calliope series of varieties in 2010.
"The dilemma is that we are in a commodity market," he said. "How do you differentiate so people at the garden center instantly see that it is different?"
He thinks he has achieved that, "especially with Calliope Dark Red. It's a variety you can recognize from a quite a distance."
Proven Winners is moving next year to introduce its own branded lines, each with five flower colors. One is called Boldly, whose hues range mostly in the reds; the other is Timeless, which includes lavender, orange, pink and red varieties. The Boldly varieties share the more zonal, upright traits, the Timeless ones the trailing habit of the ivy-leafed, said spokeswoman Jeanine Standard.
Ball Horticultural in West Chicago, Ill., plans to introduce a line of double-flowered interspecifics next year named Double Take, Jim Kennedy said. He is sales manager for Ball FloraPlant, a breeding subsidiary that developed the line with a German partner, Selecta.
Ball, Syngenta, Proven Winners and others are part of a huge and complex global industry of plant breeders, propagators, growers and retailers that have tapped into consumer interest in container gardening. Their target consumer is not an experienced gardener but someone who wants annuals as colorful, floriferous and easy seasonal decoration. The geranium is a key player in this world: Among annuals that are propagated vegetatively, as opposed to seed-grown, geraniums "are top of the heap," Kennedy said.
Rick Schoellhorn of Proven Winners said the hybrids make geraniums available to Southern gardeners, increasing the plant's range by about 30 percent. "The rest of the country gets a tougher, more disease-resistant plant and a better color range," he said.
This includes a deep purple red coloration that had been available only in the ivy-leafed varieties.
The new hybrids might well make hanging baskets more popular in hotter regions once more. When homeowners used them for ivy-leafed geraniums a few years ago, the plants would burn up, Kennedy said. Consumers came to see the hanging basket as a losing proposition.
The new line was developed to capitalize on the ivy-leafed traits of glossy foliage, clean presentation and high flower count, but also for the longevity of the bloom, he said. Another key trait, along with the rich crimson flower hues, was dark green leaves, which buyers equate with plant health.
"The pelargonium instills confidence in the gardener, especially the new gardener," he said. "That breeds success; they are going to come back next year for more."
Water and sun: Geraniums like rich, free-draining soil and are particularly suited to containers. They prefer a sunny location but will take partial shade. Hanging baskets and window boxes can get hot and dry quickly, and might need watering twice a day. Pots will be easier. Don't water until the soil surface feels dry, and avoid wetting the leaves.
Remove spent blooms: As flowers and leaves decline, remove them to keep the plant looking good, to promote reblooming and to discourage the spread of disease. Peter J. Schenk Jr., a professional gardener in Alexandria, Va., says leaf and flower stalks should not be cut; they should but removed entirely by reaching down to their base and pulling them off.
Fertilizer: Geraniums are heavy feeders and need fertilizing at least once every two weeks. Use a granular fertilizer formulated for annuals or, organically, a fish and seaweed fertilizer. Dilute according to label instructions.
Scented geraniums: The care of scented geraniums is essentially the same, although there will be fewer flowers to deadhead. Pinching back stems will encourage bushier growth and a contained habit, especially important in vigorous varieties such as Citronella and Mabel Grey. They will take a greater degree of shade, though they are basically sun lovers.
The Washington Post