Hardy Geraniums – ‘Cranesbills’
I have written before that these are one of my favourite plants. Actually, like most gardeners, I have lots of “favourites” including the plant that is in front of me at the time! However, I always seem to be drawn back to the humble geranium with their excellent garden qualities, their versatility and their durability. As I mentioned in my piece on the June Garden the geranium plays an important role in our garden which now has something over 25 different varieties including three new ones added in June as soon as we were able to get out to our local nursery! Also when I was designing gardens for clients I always made sure that whenever possible each part of the garden contained a hardy geranium- a bit like the well-known Victorian gardener Miss Willmott who secretly scattered seeds of the sea holly, Eryngium giganteum, whenever she visited a garden- hence its common name ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’!
For many years hardy geraniums were considered by many to be “space fillers” or “bread and butter” plants and to only play a supporting role in the garden. However, in the last thirty years or so they have increasingly been seen as rising stars with great potential. This coincided with, or was it the result of?, the introduction of new species and the creation by plant breeders of new cultivated hybrids and varieties. I once read that the great plantswoman, Rosemary Verey, was advised as a beginner to grow easy plants whose foliage and flowers make a year-long contribution to the garden before branching out to use a more sophisticated palette. As a result she began her garden by using hardy geraniums which became the backbone of her plantings in her early years.
These days there are geraniums in a series of heights from 4 inches (10 cms) to 48 inches (120 cms), so they will fit into any situation from an alpine trough to a wild woodland setting. They are also ideal for the modern gardener who often looks for a pleasing, long-term effect which does not require a great deal of upkeep.
I have mentioned before the confusion between geraniums and pelargoniums which actually goes as far back as the 18th century when Linnaeus (Carl von Linne), the father of modern taxonomy (plant classification), decided in his wisdom to include them both under the same general heading of ‘Geranium’. When the pelargonium became much more popular in Victorian and Edwardian times it literally took over the term geranium and even today the vast majority of people, growers and garden centres still refer to pelargoniums as geraniums. I have a wonderful book on hardy geraniums by Trevor Bath and Joy Jones in which they refer to hardy geraniums as ‘cultivated cranesbills’. This seems to be an admirable compromise, combining a reference to their wild origins but also the degree to which they have been welcomed into the garden setting. If you are interested in finding out more about ‘cultivated cranesbills’ I can whole-heartedly recommend their book, “The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Hardy Geraniums”, published by David Charles, ISBN 0-7153-0014-8.
The Geranium genus (Pelargoniums are now in a genus of their own) contains around 300 species of mainly herbaceous, evergreen and semi-evergreen perennials. They come in a wide variety of flower colours in white, pink, purple and various shades of blue, each flower having five petals which after pollination produces the characteristic cranesbill seed heads. They also have equally varied growing habits and situations making them suitable for almost every garden. They are also very undemanding, easy to grow plants which flower over a long period and in addition have interesting foliage. Their leaves are rounded, lobed or five pointed, sometimes toothed, frequently aromatic or interestingly marked, textured or coloured, sometimes also colouring well in the autumn.
See what I mean, what’s not to like? At the risk of getting too technical there are basically two groups- Small and Large!
Small Hardy Geraniums
These as the name suggests are low growing and are most useful in the front of borders, in rock gardens or troughs and as ground cover. They are virtually all fully hardy, evergreen or semi-evergreen, long-lived perennials which tolerate a wide range of sites and soil types. Their lobed or toothed leaves are often aromatic and through summer and autumn they bear saucer- shaped flowers ranging in colour from white, through soft blues to intense pinks often with contrasting veins or eyes. Most do best in sun in well drained soils but are fairly easy going and will tolerate less good conditions. They require little attention apart from the removal of spent flower stems if you don’t want the seed heads and any old or damaged leaves.
Varieties include- Geranium cinereum (pink), G. clarkia ‘Kashmir White’, G. dalmaticum (pink), G. himalayense ‘Gravetye’ (blue), G. ‘Johnson’s Blue’, G. ‘Russell Prichard’ (dark pink), G. wallichianum ‘Buxton’s Variety’ (blue with a white centre), G. ‘Rozanne’ (blue also with a white centre).
‘Rozanne’ is a recently introduced cultivar (cultivated variety) which has become very popular and rightly so. It starts to flower a little later than some other geraniums in late June but once it starts it carries on well into the autumn. It is also an excellent ground cover and needs nothing more than a quick tidy up in late winter/early spring.
Larger Hardy Geraniums
These taller, clump forming types make effective, long-lived border plants or infill among shrubs. Some varieties do welcome some support either by growing through other plants around them or by hoops or canes. They are well suited to cottage garden plantings with their free-flowering, natural habit and do very well between roses as they are not particularly demanding plants in terms of food and water and therefore don’t compete with the more needy roses. The lobed, generally evergreen leaves, may be coloured or aromatic and throughout the summer and into autumn they have an abundance of saucer-shaped flowers in white, shades of blue, pink and purple. As long as the soil is not waterlogged they will tolerate most soil types and some will even thrive in quite deep shade. If after the first flush of flower usually in June the plants become a little untidy they can be cut right down to ground level after which they will regrow to produce a second show of foliage and flowers later in the season particularly if given a good water and a light feed.
Varieties include- Geranium endressii (pink), G. magnificum (blue), G. macrorrhizum (pink or white and especially good in shade, even dry shade), G. ‘Mrs Kendall Clarke (blue), G. ‘Mayflower’ (purple) G. phaeum (deep purple/black, deep maroon, violet blue or white), G. ‘Wargrave Pink’
I hope there is something in the above to tempt you either to add to your geranium collection or to begin one. I’m sure if you do you won’t be disappointed but I can’t promise you that you won’t get a little obsessed with them as a freely admit I am! There are worse things in life to get hooked on, I’m sure.
Next time we will be into the new month and I will have a look at the delights of the August Garden. Until then stay safe, keep well and enjoy all that gardening has to offer.