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Peppermint Impostor

A Geranium With Fragrant Foliage to Fool the Nose

April 18, 1999|SUSAN HEEGER

Touch it, sniff it, rub it against your cheek. With its fuzzy leaf and frosty scent, the peppermint geranium (Pelargonium tomentosum) is about as charming as a plant gets. Long a well-kept secret among horticultural connoisseurs, this fluffy character has lately been discovered by florists who tuck it among the roses in their bouquets and by gardeners who plant it on its own or in perennial beds, where it pairs beautifully with other greens.

In a pot, indoors or out, Pelargonium tomentosum spills and drapes romantically. In the ground, it crawls and tumbles on itself, spreading fast enough to pack a border in a season. Shade-tolerant, drought-tolerant, not too picky about soil, it's grown for foliage rather than bloom, but in spring and summer, if it gets some sun, it erupts with small white flower clusters.

Like other scented pelargoniums, the peppermint hails from South Africa, and it's sensitive to winter freezes. Otherwise, it's easy to grow: Plant it now en masse along steps or paths--wherever you'll brush past its fragrant leaves. Touch releases their oils, and so do hot sun and rain, but even dried, they're aromatic, which makes them useful in potpourris. In midsummer, propagate by cuttings.

The softly ruffled tomentosum (which means "hairy") looks striking in the garden among strap-leafed irises and flax, and its shimmering surface sets off silvers such as astelia and artemisia. Even alone, as a groundcover, the furry leaves are seductive. But for those who crave a richer mint, there's a brown-centered pelargonium called 'Chocolate Peppermint,' which blends the two in a plant that smells good enough to eat.

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