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, and 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?
No. My highfalutin gardening buddies might believe that I've been sniffing the Citronella, but I think geraniums are okay. 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) with new forms, new colors and 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 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, 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.
Since a company named Goldsmith Seeds introduced the first seven years ago, other hybridizers have been scrambling to produce their own. The company, 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 a hybridizer named Mitch Hanes, who has bred 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 in 2010.
"The dilemma is that we are in a commodity market," he told me. "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 plans to introduce its own branded lines next year, each with five flower colors. One is called Boldly, whose hues range mostly in the reds, the other 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 Double Take, a new line of double-flowered interspecifics, next year Jim Kennedy said. He is sales manager for Ball FloraPlant, a breeding subsidiary that developed the new line with a German-based 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 vegetatively propagated (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, and "the rest of the country gets a tougher, more disease-resistant plant and a better color range."
This includes a deep purple red that before was only in the ivies.
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, Kennedy 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."
Scented geraniums are considered herbs and are derived from several species. They are less showy than zonals and ivy-leafed, with blooms that are small to minute. But individual plants can get considerably larger, to 3 feet or more. Others might get to just 12 inches. They are grown for their ornamental foliage and the scented oils that they contain. Over four centuries, breeders have developed dozens of varieties that mimic the fragrance of other plants. They include lemon, lime, orange, pineapple, eucalyptus, peppermint, rose, apple and various mints, some scents more convincing than others. The leaves have a range of culinary uses, and fans put them in jellies, salads, summer drinks and tea, and incorporate them into cakes. The variety known as Citronella produces an oil that is said to repel mosquitoes.
The foliage is highly variable in form and size and includes cutleaf and variegated types. They are best grown in clay pots and can be brought indoors for winter, if you have a bright room or windowsill.
This year I'm growing eight, including the popular — some say essential — Attar of Roses, a big plant that needs pinching back. The lineup includes another robust variety named Peppermint Rose, whose lavender flowers have a minty-rose flavor and scent, and a striking cutleaf variegated plant named Grey Lady Plymouth, also with lavender flowers. Apple is a more compact variety whose aroma is, to my nostrils, unconvincing, but its tiny umbels of white flowers invite close examination.
Another class of geranium — the Regal Geranium — suffers in the heat and should be considered only where such cool-climate plants as primulas, fuchsias and Gerbera daisies flourish. This is unfortunate, because it is a lovely and elegant geranium with striking, bicolored blooms on tall stalks. As a class of geraniums, regals are on the wane as small, specialty growers go out of business.
Robin Parer, a grower north of San Francisco (geraniaceae.com), maintains one of the best collections of regals in the country, along with a wide range of scented geranium varieties. She also sells the true geranium, a hardy perennial also known as cranesbill.