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Celebrate the year of the geranium by adding them to your yard

By Larry Sagers

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, April 8 2012 3:36 p.m. MDT

Common or zonal geraniums feature blossoms from white to pink, lavender and red.

Larry Sagers

Enlarge photo»

Each year the National Garden Bureau designates a flower, a vegetable and a perennial for special focus and to educate the public.

They have designated 2012 as the year of the Year of the Herbs, the Year of the Huechera and the Year of the Geranium.

When we talk about the geranium, we are usually not using the right name for the bedding plants gardeners plant in late spring.

Although we call them geraniums, they are really pelargoniums. True geraniums are the cranesbills that are hardy herbaceous perennials, some of which are native to Utah.

The names got confused back in the 17th century when pelargoniums were brought from South Africa. Based on the shape of their flower, botanists called them both "geraniums."

The name stuck and it will not likely ever change because most nurseries still sell the pelargoniums as geraniums and the geraniums as hardy geraniums.

Pelargoniums are tender annuals plants that come mostly from South Africa. They have graced local gardens for decades with their showy blossoms, interesting leaves and even the different fragrance on those leaves.

My first recollection of these plants involved my grandmother, who had these in her in her kitchen window. They were usually cuttings taken in the fall, and she would root these in canning jars so she could plant them the following spring.

Later, several school teachers had large collections that they would overwinter in our classrooms. We watered and pruned and deheaded these plants so they looked good to set out in the spring.

These plants came to America in 1786 when Thomas Jefferson shipped the plant from France to one of this country's foremost horticulturists, John Bartram of Philadelphia. And each year, new hybrids and selections are introduced to the public.

All pelargoniums are not the same. There are numerous species and these species have many different characteristics. For simplicity, they are grouped into four basic types.

Common or zonal geraniums, as they are sometimes called, are Pelargonium x hortorum. These are the classic bedding plant, and it derives its name from the ring — or "zoned" — leaf markings.

These plants thrive in containers as single specimens as well as mass plantings in flower beds.

The plants can be single or double-flowered. The plants that grow as annuals get 1 foot to 2 feet tall with a similar spread.

These plants have an extensive range of blossom colors, ranging from pure white to salmon, pink, orange, magenta, lavender and brilliant red, with numerous showy variations of bi-colored blossoms.

There are also many fancy flowered types available.

Zonals include the fancy-leaved varieties with highly variegated foliage. The color of these leaves vary from very pale, yellowish green, to dark green, to those with dark, reddish banding.

These different colors overlap to create myriad patterns of colored leaves.

Regal and Angel Geraniums (Pelargonium domesticum) are also known as Martha Washington geraniums.

These do best in cooler areas because they need cool nighttime temperatures to bud.

The large bushy plants have large, single or double flowers with dramatic colors and patterns. These are difficult to grow in Utah.

Scented-leaf geraniums (Pelargonium domesticum) are often heirloom plants that are grown for their pleasing fragrance, unusual foliage, delicate flowers, essential oils and even for cooking.

The fragrance is created by oils in the leaves and is released when the leaves are rubbed.

There are many fragrances including those of roses, lemons, cloves, nutmeg, pine, peppermint, apple, pineapple, chocolate, coconut and many others.

Ivy-leaf geraniums (Pelargonium peltatum) have long, brittle stems with sculptured, ivy shaped succulent leaves.

These have a graceful trailing habit and are popular for hanging baskets, window-boxes and containers.

These plants flower profusely throughout the summer. They are covered with smaller, looser flower umbels of single, semi-double or double blossoms in shades of deep maroon, red or pink.

Traditionally, all types of these plants were propagated vegetatively, taking cuttings from mother plants. The first successful seed geraniums were introduced in 1962, and there are now many different cultivars that are grown from seeds.

Rather than worry about their name, spend your time finding one of the hundreds of these beautiful plants to grow well in your garden. Their robust growth, long bloom season and beautiful foliage and superb flowers are going to make your garden very attractive this season.

Garden tips

For more information on the Year of the Geranium, including additional history and cultural information, go to www.nbg.org

The Red Butte Spring Bulb Show and Competition will be held April 21 and 22, 9 a.m.-7:30 p.m. at the Red Butte Garden Visitors Center. The competition is open for any and all spring bulbs to everyone who would like to bring in flowers. Regular garden admission applies; members get in free.

Larry A. Sagers is a horticulture specialist for the Utah State University Extension Service at Thanksgiving Point.

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