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Horticulture Hullabaloo – Is it a Geranium or a Pelargonium?

Who knew 247 years after the historical Boston Tea Party we would once again irritate our English brethren with yet another quirk? This time, it is a horticulture hullabaloo centered on the American habit of lumping the Geranium and the Pelargonium into one bucket. The Pelargonium & Geranium Society maintains that the two plants are distinct in their appearances, native origins, climate tolerances, and even historical uses.

The Pelargonium, according to Robert Sweet author of Geraniace, The Natural Order of Gerania Vol. III (1824-1826), first reached Europe from India in the 1600’s. However, most botanists and individuals passionate about the Pelargonium contend it originally hails from South Africa. Between 1672 and 1738, seeds and propagated plants passed throughout Europe before being named “Pelargonium” by Johannes Burman, a Dutch physician and botanist, in 1738. The species has an interesting history in its usage and the folklore surrounding it.

In South Africa, the Zulu were known to use the plant to scent themselves during courting rituals while in Poland they represented a symbol of hope and/or a protector of the home. It has also received mention in a multitude of literary works including Sketches by Mark Twain (1874), Little Dorrit (1857) and The Personal History of David Copperfield (1850) by Charles Dickens, and The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830) by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

The Herb Society of America, based in Kirtland, Ohio, notes that “The genus Pelargonium includes the informal classification of zonals (referring to the markings on the leaf surface, and are often sought after for their smells. The scented-leaf Pelargoniums are reported to have aromas strikingly similar to peppermint, lemon, lime, orange, strawberry, camphor, nutmeg, spice, apricot, apple, ginger, and coconut. It is rumored that in the 1500 to 1800’s, the plants were used as an all purpose air freshener for clothing and humans in an era before washing machines and regular bathing (The Ledger, Lakeland, FL, 2009).

Although hybrids, known as “double-flowered”, can grow between 8 to 10 petals, most scented Pelargoniums have 5 petals. The flowers, generally appearing in yields between 1-50, can be white, pink, mauve, lavender, light yellow, and/or burgundy. The name is derived from “pelargos“; the Greek word for stork that refers to the plants appearance. Pelargoniums, still very much confused with Geraniums more than 400 years later, are annuals that typically last no longer than a season. Geraniums, on the other hand, are classified as perennials that have the ability to return annually with the proper care.

To learn more about Pelargoniums and Geraniums, check out the references used:

Brief History of the Genus (2017). Retrieved from: http://www.pelargonium.si/history.html

Pelargoniums: An Herb Society of America Guide (2006). Retrieved from: https://www.herbsociety.org/

Pelargonium Basics. The Pelargonium and Geranium Society. Retrieved from: http://thepags.org.uk/about-us/pelargonium-basics

Geraniums mimic other plants’ scents (2009). The Ledger. Retrieved from: https://www.theledger.com/article/LK/20051024/News/608104173/LL

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