Getting beyond the big, red bloom Garden: Geraniums come in more than one variety: They can be delicately colored and scented and used for flavor as well as decoration.

August 02, 1998|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For years, I thought of geraniums as blobby, window-box staples that looked as if they had been designed by a 6-year-old equipped only with two crayons - red and green. Then a friend gave me a rose geranium, whose delicate pink flowers waved in the breeze like tiny gloved hands and whose etched leaves perfumed the air each time someone brushed past. It was an eye-opener, akin to discovering that a raucous, brassy friend came from a family of people who wrote haiku in their spare time.

Scented geraniums, Pelargonium geraniaceae, are a family nearly as extensive as the Kennedys and almost as varied - from the dark-veined, balsam-scented leaves of oak leaf geranium (P. quercifolium), to the pale, lace-edged discs of orange-scented 'Prince of Orange' (P. crispum). The Latin name, Pelargonium, derives from pelargos, the Greek word for stork; the plant's seed pods resemble the long, elegant bill of a stork, or crane.

Brought to Britain from South Africa in 1632, scented geraniums remained relatively unknown until the French perfume industry woke up to their potential in the mid-19th century. By 1847, perfumers were distilling scented oil from rose geranium (P. graveolens). Soon, Victorian ladies were strategically positioning pots of scented geraniums - both inside and out - so their long skirts rustled against them, releasing fragrance as they passed.

Varieties

There are many varieties of scented geranium - pine, rose-and-peppermint, apple, ginger, lemon, orange, old-fashioned rose, lemon rose, and, for those who want chocolate without the calories, chocolate mint geranium.

"They really do smell like Breyers ice cream," says Faith Wilson, owner of Radcliffe Mill Garden Center in Chestertown, with a laugh. Radcliffe Mill usually stocks seven kinds of scented geranium.

"Our biggest seller is citronella [geranium]," says Wilson. "It smells like lemon - the same smell as the candles - and keeps mosquitoes away."

While citronella geraniums often cost a little more than the others, in my experience they work - not perfectly, but noticeably. Wilson's favorites are the ginger and the staghorn oak geraniums, "because we like the leaves and flowers. The oak has a pale pink single flower."

"It's just a matter of [personal] preference," observes Sally Foster, proprietor of An Eastridge Garden, an herb and nursery business in Centreville. "Some [customers] are more partial to one than the other. They're all unique in their own way."

Foster sells lemon, lemon rose, apple, staghorn oak, apricot (which has a red flower), ginger, and variegated-leafed mint rose geraniums. She also stocks a red-flowering rose geranium, unusual since most rose geraniums have either pink or white flowers.

Uses

Among other things, scented geranium leaves can be used to flavor jams, drinks, syrups, wine cups, butters, water ices and vinegars. Finely chop the leaves and add to liquid. Heat gently to infuse the flavor, then discard the leaves. There is a list of possible uses in "The Complete Book of Herbs" by Leslie Bremness (Viking Studio Books 1994).

"I suggest [that customers] put one of the lemon-scented leaves the sugar they use for their iced tea," says Foster, "or put a couple leaves in their bath water for that nice scent."

Though there are many different things to do with scented geraniums, Foster observes that, like the Victorians, most customers simply "put them in their gardens because they like the scent."

Cultivation

Scented geraniums are easy to grow. They like full sun and well-drained soil supplemented with a little compost if you've got it, but will tolerate a little shade and mediocre soil. A tender perennial, it must be brought inside before frost.

"It's always best to ... bring in small plants rather than try to bring in a large plant unless it stayed in a pot all summer," says Foster. "If you try to dig a large plant out of the ground, ... you should certainly trim it back. [But] starting with a smaller plant is a better way to go."

Another way to perpetuate scented geraniums is to take cuttings. "They're very easy to propagate by cuttings," says Foster.

JTC "Take a 2-to-3-inch stem cutting and put it in vermiculite. You can use a rooting hormone, which makes it root faster."

In winter, keep geraniums in a sunny window in a cool room and water sparingly.

Sources

An Eastridge Garden, 533 Dulin Clarke Road, Centreville, Md. 21617. Call 410-758-3650 or fax 410-758-0475.

Radcliffe Mill Lawn & Garden Center, High Street Extended, Chestertown, Md. 21620. Call 410-778-2080

Pub Date: 8/02/98

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