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GARDENING : Geraniums Make Perfect Scents

August 15, 1992|SHARON COHOON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Scented geraniums--even their most avid admirers will admit--are not gorgeous. They lack the spectacular blossoms of their glamorous relatives, the 'Martha Washingtons.'

"Insignificant," sniff garden references about scented geraniums' flowers.

Nor do they have the dramatically patterned foliage of their cousins, the fancy leaf geraniums.

But what the Plain Janes of the Pelargonium clan lack in drama, they make up for in good scents.

Scented geraniums have a multitude of virtues, says Dorothy Tarver, who is in charge of their propagation at the Fullerton Arboretum.

They're easy to care for, repel pests, are drought-tolerant and come in an intriguing variety of leaf shapes and textures, she says. But people don't scoop them up at the arboretum's plant sales twice as fast as other geraniums for any of these sterling qualities.

"People buy scenteds for the fragrance of their leaves," Tarver says. "That's the main thing. That's what hooks you."

She speaks from experience. Tarver didn't have one scented geranium in her garden before she volunteered for propagation duties at the arboretum two years ago. Now she has two dozen.

Bea Grow of San Clemente is another gardener enamored of scented geraniums. One of her favorites is the huge potted rose geranium just outside her kitchen door. She brushes by it whenever she steps outside to snip off a few inches of chives.

"Between the rose geranium on one side of the path and the heliotrope on the other, it smells pretty wonderful out here on warm afternoons," she says.

The distinctive scents of the volatile oils stored in geranium leaves are released by the warmth of the sun or when the leaves are bruised by handling.

If rose-scented Pelargonium graveolens makes Grow swoon, P. odoratissimum sweeps her off her feet.

"I'll be out pruning and deadheading in the garden, and I'll wonder why I'm so hungry," she says. "Then I'll notice I'm next to my apple geranium. It smells more like bananas and guavas than apples to me, but it smells delicious. Only it makes me crave a tropical fruit salad.

"That's what I like about scented geraniums, though. They satisfy all your senses."

Take P. tomentosum, with a peppermint scent. "Aren't the leaves wonderful?" asks Annabelle Rice, admiring the forest green, velvet-textured, grape-leaf shapes of the foliage of the geranium growing beneath her living room window in Huntington Beach.

"I love stroking them when I walk in the front door."

(English garden writer Gertrude Jekyll described P. tomentosum's leaves as "thick as a fairy's blanket, soft as a vicuna robe.")

"And look how different the leaves are on this one," says Rice, indicating a nutmeg-scented geranium near the driveway. P. fragrans is as dainty and restrained as P. tomentosum is bold and vigorous, and in contrast its leaves are small, round and demurely gray.

Scented geranium leaves can also look like maple or oak leaves, parsley or fern foliage. They can be rough and hairy or silky smooth. Serrated or ruffle-edged. Dark green, lime green, or gray-green. Solid or variegated.

Collect to your heart's content. This is one gardening passion that won't break the bank, especially if you trade cuttings with other collectors.

"Half the geraniums in my garden were started from cuttings given to me by friends," says Grow. "Maybe that's another reason I like them so much."

Geraniums are among the easiest plants in the world to propagate, says Tarver at the Fullerton Arboretum.

Tarver roots geranium cuttings in a mixture of sand and perlite. Rice is more casual in her methods, but also successful.

"I've rooted geraniums in water, stuck cuttings in with another plant and later transferred them to pots of their own, and sometimes put them directly into the ground without adding any soil amendments," she says. "They're so easy, it's almost ridiculous."

Cultivation is just as simple.

Scented geraniums, like other members of the Pelargonium genus, are South African in origin and prefer porous soil.

Maybe this is a good time to clear up any confusion about names. There are three divisions to the Geraniaceae family--true geraniums, erodiums and pelargoniums. Technically speaking, scented geraniums are scented pelargoniums, but in the United States they've always been "geraniums."

If you have heavy clay soil, amend it with compost or peat moss before planting geraniums in the garden, Tarver says. For potted geraniums, the arboretum uses a sandy mixture for professional gardeners. At home she just uses regular potting soil.

Fertilize plants lightly with a fertilizer not too high in nitrogen once a month, she says, "though I rarely fertilize my own--I just don't have time--and they do just fine."

"And don't overwater. If people have any problems with geraniums, that's usually why. It's about the only way you can really go wrong."

If you would like to experiment with scented geraniums, here are some of the above collectors' recommendations:

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