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GARDEN FRESH : Please Eat the Geraniums

October 06, 1994|SYLVIA THOMPSON

The family of scented geraniums is multifarious.

Some are poetic. In the language of flowers, if you sent a friend a rose geranium, you'd be saying that person was your chosen. If you sent a nutmeg geranium, it would mean you expected to meet. If you sent a lemony geranium, it would tell the recipient to expect the unexpected.

All are elegant. Their leaves can fill the palm of your hand or balance on the tip of a little finger--be ferny or oak-like, flat or furled, smooth or furry. Although the flowers of most are small, they resemble in miniature all the vivid geraniums that grace window sills around the world.

Beyond their lyrical meaning and beauty, the subtlety and range of fragrance in scented geraniums is astonishing--around 250 have been recorded since they arrived in England from the African Cape about 1632. Dozens of scents are still available. For example, the Sandy Mush Herb Nursery offers 17 that are rose-scented, 12 scented with lemon, 18 scented of fruits and spices, 12 of assorted mints and 13 whose scents are described as "pungent." Other specialists offer a wealth of 60 species and more.


Which to grow? I began our collection with the rich scents of lemony Mabel Grey, intense Attar of Roses, biting Peppermint, spicy Nutmeg (with cream-dashed variegated leaves) and tart/sweet Apple. Next you might treat yourself to Rober's Lemon Rose, Prince of Orange, strawberry scented Countess of Scarborough, Clorinda (which can be eucalyptus, lemon or nutmeg depending on your mood and the time of day), coconut, lemon balm, ginger . . .

In the kitchen, these leaves must be used with care because their flavor ranges from subtle to subtlest. The highest and best use is probably layering them with granulated or confectioner's sugar in a tightly closed jar--in only a few days, you'll have scented sugar for your fruit or cereal, to sprinkle over cakes and tarts and stir into tea. Some, like peppermint and lemon, make gorgeous tisanes-- steep a small handful of torn leaves in boiling water in a covered cup or a pot for five minutes, then sip. Scented geranium leaves are wonderful in old-fashioned puddings too.

Scented geraniums are the source of many pleasures. Lay branches in a linen closet or through bureau drawers. If anyone reading this still writes letters on stationery, you can bury leaves in your writing paper box. And when you pull out grandmother's finger bowls for holiday parties, do as grandmother did and float scented geranium leaves and blossoms in the water.

Scented geraniums can be grown as long-lived perennials in ground where there's no frost the year around--some will get three or more feet high. Where there's frost, most species are ultra-tender and must be whisked indoors for winter--in containers, of course.


Indoors, geraniums are happiest in a sunny but cool spot, and they must have good circulation of air--no stuffy corner. Water sparingly through winter. In spring, when all danger of frost has passed, back into the garden they go.

Sometimes I plant them in the ground for the summer; it depends on their size and shape and where I want them. Since a plant in a pot has the bonus of several inches of added height, often I set pots in bare spaces, which they fill marvelously. Be sure to put a saucer under the pot so the roots won't dive into the ground.

Whether in a pot or the ground, scented geraniums need full sun, well-drained soil or soil mix allowed to dry out between waterings and feedings of half fish/half kelp solution at half-strength every month or so through the growing season.

Scented geraniums reproduce most successfully from cuttings. If you have friends who grow scented geraniums, take them a jar of homemade jelly or a nosegay in exchange for a cutting or two.


Cuttings are best taken when branches are pliant enough to bend without snapping. From the tip of a vigorous mature plant, pick the top two or three inches of a stocky branch that has two or three nodes (bumpy places that sprout new stalks). Nip off flowers and all but the top two or three leaves, wrap the cutting so it won't dry out, but don't put it in water--keep it in a cool place until planting.

For each cutting, fill a 2 1/2- to 3-inch container with commercial potting soil mixed with 1/2 teaspoon perlite or builder's (not beach) sand. Water thoroughly, then plunge the cutting into the middle an inch deep. Set in a saucer in bright light but no sunshine. Keep evenly moist but not wet, and never let water stand in the saucer. Spring through fall, the cutting will root in about two weeks-- longer in winter and with some species. Move to the next size up when the roots fill the pot--do this all through the plant's life.

These dear garden mimics are as tempting as they are charming. That's why, should you see me on a walk in geranium country, please don't ask to see what's in my pockets.


Local nurseries can order a number of scented geraniums.

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