Champaign-Urbana Herb Society
Herb of the Month - Scented Geraniums - January 1999
Scented Geraniums (Pelargonium)There are many different varieties of scented geraniums. Actually, these delightful plants are not really geraniums, but pelargoniums, a botanical fact that is just plain confusing. But I will try to explain.
Aldelma Grenier Simmons, in Herb Gardening in Five Seasons, writes "while scented geraniums are members of the vast geranium family, they are known specifically as species and varieties of pelargonium, a word derived from the resemblance of the seedcase to a stork’s bill. All of the geraniums commonly cultivated as ‘pot plants’ are pelargoniums that came from the South African Cape."
The scented geranium was introduced in Europe in the seventh century. In Victorian days, geraniums were among the most popular houseplants. No lady was a lady if she did not have several in her collection. But fashions in plants change just as in everything else, and until recently they were hard to find. A few specialized nurseries stocked them, but most collectors got theirs from trading with friends or by stealing a start or two when nobody was watching.
In July or early August, you can take starts of the plants. Trim them to a length of 4 to 6 inches and remove the leaves from the bottom third. Allow the cuttings to callus (dry out and seal the cut surface) for 24 hours. Insert in potting soil or vermiculite; there is no need to use rooting hormone. Mist frequently but do not overwater. Allow 4 to 6 weeks before checking for roots. Fertilize cuttings grown in pots once a month with half-strength fertilizer.
Scented geraniums are not known for their flowers. Gardeners cherish them for the fragrant leaves, which are most often used in potpourris and sachets. Alone, or with brightly colored blossoms from other flowers, a geranium mixture needs no fixative or added oil. Keep a scented geranium in a sunny window of the kitchen, bath or baby’s room where it will serve as a natural room deodorizer.
Not only do they bring delight to our noses, scented geraniums also tickle our taste buds. Steep one tablespoon of dried leaves in one cup of hot water, alone or in combination with mint, lavender or lemon balm, for five minutes. Add lemon juice or honey if desired. This tea has been said to relieve stomach distress and to act as a mild tranquilizer.
Geranium vinegar or wine adds sparkle to salads and appetizers. Steep five or six fresh leaves (or one tablespoon of dried leaves) in tepid vinegar or light wine for two weeks. Strain and use the liquid for salad dressings, sauces or gelatins. This same vinegar has other valuable uses. Add two tablespoons to one cup of warm water to make an herbal hair rinse. Pour through your hair after shampooing to cut soap film and add a delightful sheen and provocative aroma. It is also effective as a headache remedy. Dip a cloth in a solution of four tablespoons to a cup of water. Wring out the cloth and lie down with it on your forehead for a few minutes. This was very popular with Victorian ladies who suffered from "vapors." Modern medicine might scoff at this simple cure, but what is better for stress and tension than rest in pleasant circumstances?
Fresh geranium leaves lend an exotic flavor to cakes, sugars and butters. Lay a few leaves, especially the rose or lemon scented varieties, in the bottom of a cake pan before pouring in white or yellow cake batter. Bake as usual, invert on a cake rack and carefully remove the leaves. Frost with geranium-butter icing or dust with geranium sugar. To prepare butter, wrap rose geranium leaves around a small ball of butter or margarine. Let it stand for 24 hours and then remove leaves. To prepare sugar, layer sugar and very dry geranium leaves in a bowl for one week. Remove the leaves and enjoy your organically-flavored sweetener.
The leaves may be harvested any time before frost. Tie them in bundles and hang them to dry in an airy dark room. They can also be dried in a dehydrator, microwave or even an oven with a pilot light. They do not keep their color very well when dried, but the fragrance is strong even a year later. Use them to make sachets or scent bags.
There are over fifty varieties of rose geraniums, many with undertones of lemon, spice or peppermint. Most have rather deeply cut leaves and small lavender flowers. Old Fashion Rose and Velvet Rose are shrubby plants which can be pinched and pruned to an attractive bushy shape. Attar of Rose grows well in a pot raised high enough to allow it to trail down. The fruit group includes such varieties as lemon, orange, lime, strawberry, apple, apricot and gooseberry. Some of the names may not seem appropriate, but there is little chance that you will not recognize lemon, green apple or lime. The strongly-scented coconut resembles apple in its growth, starting as a low rosette, then sending out trailing stems.
In the spice group, consider nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon and peppermint. Nutmeg has small, smooth, grey-green leaves. Cinnamon smells especially spicy and roots easily from cuttings. Peppermint (P. tomentosum) always attracts attention with its strong aroma and large velvety green leaves. Its trailing habit makes it a good candidate for a hanging basket, and it prefers more shade than other scented geraniums.
Scented geraniums can be grown either in pots or directly in the ground for more production. They like a well-drained soil. Fertilize at the time of planting out and again in July with a balanced fertilizer, 20-20-20. They should be watered thoroughly at least once a week. During the summer, plan for some protection from strong sun, especially for the peppermint. Before it frosts, dig them up carefully, trim the tops and roots and pot them up in a light potting soil. They like to be slightly potbound when kept indoors. If kept under light during the winter, try to give them 10 to 12 hours a day at a cool temperature. A sunny southern window will do. Trim the tops off to keep them from getting too leggy and to encourage sturdy growth.
They are not demanding plants and are quick to signal their needs. If the lower leaves turn yellow, you are overwatering. If they drop without yellowing, the plant is too dry. Purple-tinged leaves signal a lack of phosphorus. Insects are generally not a problem except for white flies. Organic gardeners will prefer to coat discs of yellow plastic or cardboard with motor oil or Vaseline and hang them nearby to attract the flies. The variety of fragrances, textures, flavors and leaf forms combine to make scented geraniums true herbs—useful plants to delight the senses.
Thanks to Lou Ann Koebel for this report on scented geraniums.
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