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A Soon-to-Be Favorite Among the Perennials

Gardeners Are Discovering the Erodium and Its Hardy Blooms

May 29, 1999|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Erodium. Not exactly a household name, is it? Some gardening experts, however, predict that one day this small perennial will be as common as its cousin, the geranium.

"People have been attracted to bigger, showier plants, but I think erodiums will become more popular as gardeners discover them," says Kathryn Jennings, owner of Katie's Scenteds and Other Greens in Lakewood, which specializes in geraniums and erodiums.

"When people visit the nursery, they really like the regal and angel geraniums, but when I point out the little electric white flower on the Reichardii album erodium, they almost always buy it. Landscapers have even become enamored with erodiums," she says.

Erodiums have a lot going for them. They flower over a very long period--from spring through fall, depending on the variety. They are mostly small, compact plants, just 3 to 10 inches high and 1 foot across with flowers up to half an inch wide, so they appeal to gardeners with limited space. They are easy to propagate, thrive at the beach, tolerate wind, and stay neat and tidy.

Perhaps best of all, erodiums thrive on neglect, says Jennings. "They are tough, forgiving plants that don't need a lot of fussing over. If you forget to water them, they'll suffer a little, but they almost always come back."

Erodiums grow well in a variety of locations, says Virginia Carlson, a Fullerton gardener, who is past president of the Horticultural Society of Orange County and a gardening teacher at Rancho Santiago Community College.

"Mine do really well in containers," she says. "They are also great miniature and rock garden-type plants." Some make good ground cover, and all of them are eye-catching at the front of a flower border.

Erodiums aren't quite as versatile as geraniums, but they're definitely useful plants, says Robin Parer, owner of Geraniaceae nursery in Kentfield, Calif., a mail-order and retail nursery that specializes in erodiums and geraniums.

"When you want to make a little statement in the garden, erodiums are a natural choice," she says. "They aren't going to blow your socks off. You may have to sink to your knees to admire them."

Erodiums are definitely plants to admire close up, says Jennings. "Once you get down and see them, they're breathtaking in their miniature beauty."

Experts suggest planting erodiums in an area with other small plants because they are easily squashed out by bigger, more vigorous growers. They look good, and attract attention between steppingstones along a path.

Erodiums are native to the Mediterranean area, but not much is known about them, says Parer, who has grown them for almost 20 years. "I used to tear my hair out over the lack of information on erodiums, but I've finally come to grips with them," she says.

Most erodiums take morning sun and afternoon shade inland and full sun along the coast.

They can be divided into three distinct categories.

The first is E. reichardii, the only true shade erodiums. These diminutive plants are 3 to 4 inches high and 10 to 12 inches wide with white, pale pink or dark pink flowers. They grow in little mounds and the leaves are no longer than half an inch.

'Bishop's Form' has light magenta flowers with red veins; 'Album' has white flowers with magenta veins; 'Pipsqueak,' little white flowers with tiny cherry veins and 'Rubrum,' dark reddish-pink single flowers with dark veins.

Erodium corsicum are a hard-to-find specialty selection. These are part-shade plants; they need light morning sun, but no hot afternoon sun. This variety has very small gray succulent leaves and either white or deep-rose flowers with magenta veins.

The second category of erodiums are the perennials, which go dormant in winter, leaving only their crown. Once spring comes, they renew growth like other perennials.

E. manescavi, which comes from the Pyrenees in France, grows up to 20 inches high and 30 inches wide and is the largest erodium known. It has coarsely toothed leaflets. There are five to 20 magenta flowers with prominent silver blotches and darker magenta veins in each flower head, which rises up from the crown. Although the individual flowers aren't large, Parer says, the flower head creates a spectacular display.

Other types in this category include E. trifolium, which has large softly lobed, and gently toothed hairy leaves. The flowers are white with purplish-red veins and blotches.

E. Castellanum, a Spanish variety, has deep pink flowers with dark blotches and light magenta veins. It is well suited for the front of the border, growing no more than 12 inches high and 18 inches wide.

The third type of erodiums are those that thrive in cracks and walls as well as in well-drained containers and rock gardens. These are feathery-leafed plants.

Species in this category include E. chrysanthum, which has gray-green, silvery leaves and yellow flowers.

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