Marin IJ Articles
July 21, 2008
Looking for a fragrant, deer resistant, easy to grow, propagate and share perennial? Try a scented geranium and perfume your house and garden!
My first scented geranium was purchased from a vendor at the San Francisco Garden Show some years ago. A $3 two-inch rose geranium has provided fragrance to my yard for many years and I have shared the easily rooted cuttings with many friends. Although its dainty pink flower is quite charming; it is the highly scented foliage that is most treasured.
Scented geraniums actually belong to the genus Pelargonium, but were mistakenly called geraniums when they were introduced to Europe in the 17th century. These aromatic treasures soon found their way to North America accompanied by their incorrect name; Thomas Jefferson became a collector of these scented beauties and cultivated them at the White House.
These heirloom plants are quite easy to grow in our Mediterranean climate. In areas with freezing temperatures for an extended period of time, geraniums are often grown as annuals. In my Mill Valley garden, this gray-green foliage provides year round color and fragrance. In colder climates, move plants to protective areas when expecting a freeze.
Many people believe that highly scented geraniums will discourage flies and maintain a container of fragrant specimens next to the kitchen door to ward off these pesky insects. The cultivars most recommended for this task are Citronella, Citrosa and Dr. Livingstone. Whether or not they keep flies away, they are lovely next to a door or pathway where they can be gently brushed against as people and pets pass by, releasing the fragrance.
Common names describe the scent of the leaves: apple, lemon, lime, peppermint and chocolate geraniums can fill your garden with mouth-watering aromas. More than 230 varieties of scented geraniums offer a size and scent to please most everyone. Most plants will grow one to three feet tall and wide. Leaf shapes vary from round to frilly, tiny to almost 4 inches across.
For success in the garden, the plants will enjoy full sun for a minimum of 4 hours per day. They aren’t very fussy about their soil and over fertilizing with a high nitrogen product can reduce flowering. Fish emulsion, one-half strength during the active growing season should keep your plants happy and flowering. They don’t like having their feet wet for long periods, so plant in well draining soil and let them dry out between waterings. They tend to grow quite rapidly in the garden and can get very leggy, so pinch back frequently and share your cuttings with friends and neighbors. Plant your fragrant cuttings in herb beds, flower borders, hanging baskets and pot some up for indoor enjoyment.
You can also enjoy the leaves and flowers in culinary treats. I learned one very clever way to use nutmeg geranium from a Martha Stewart magazine several years ago. My favorite pound cake recipe, which my mother made frequently, took on a new twist ala Martha. Collect a few nicely shaped leaves, grown without pesticides, wash and gently pat dry. Line your cake pan with parchment; oil the parchment to hold the leaves in place as you position the leaves, top side down, on the parchment. Gently add your cake batter and bake as usual. When you turn the cake out, you will enjoy the lovely organic leaf pattern and a delectable nutmeg essence in your cake.
Another way to enjoy the leaves is in flavored sugar. In a mason jar, layer sugar, clean fresh leaves of your favorite fragrant geranium and place in the sun for two weeks to develop the flavor. Sift the sugar and enjoy the delicate flavor in your iced tea or add to your baked goods.
Dried leaves can be used in potpourri and sachets.
A number of our local nurseries carry a few varieties of scented geraniums. I always find an interesting collection at the Mill Valley branches of Sloat. Online I find Papa Geno’s http://www.papagenos.com/default.asp to be entertaining, informative and offer an extensive variety, although they seem to be sold out of many selections until next spring. We are quite fortunate to have an outstanding nursery dedicated to geraniums in our very own back yard. Located in Kentfield, Geraniaceae currently offers 135 varieties of fragrant four-inch plants. Visit www.geraniaceae.com or contact them directly at 415-461-7209.