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Pelargonium - Garden Geraniums

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The Irregular Garden
and Irregular Growth

The first things that horticulturalists these days will tell you about plants from the genus Pelargonium is that they are not geraniums. It is true enough that Pelargonium and Geranium are separate genuses, but what does that matter to most gardeners? If your grandmother calls those bright red flowers on her front porch geraniums and you know what she means, I don't see anything wrong with that. I say that if folks call it a geranium it's a geranium, and we can leave the hybridizers and encyclopediasts to quibble.

As is the case with so many of our most popular flowers, the most familiar geraniums of the genus Pelargonium are native to South Africa. In much of the United States they are grown as annuals but are in fact perennials. My mother brings her geraniums inside from her Upstate New York yard every fall, takes cuttings and returns them outdoors in the spring. These plants seem to live forever and just keep on blooming, although the older plants do tend to get a bit woody and spindly. To tell the truth, these older plants are actually my favorites, as they remind me of japanese dogwood in spring when in bloom. In any case, each plant provides so many softwood cuttings that my mother's pots stay full even though she composts her oldest plants every year.

Some geraniums have the extra charm of driving away mosquitoes and other nasty biting insects with their distinctive odor. I know of one nurseryman in my area who recommends planting scented geraniums around water gardens to prevent mosquitoes from breeding there. Personally, I'm glad the mosquitoes lay their eggs in my backyard pond because the larvae provide free food to my goldfish, but I suppose that there's more than one way to swat a skeeter. The point is that these scented geraniums actually work. They're the source of citronella, the bug repellant used in the tacky wicker torches available in discount stores across the country. You'll see these geraniums sold as "mosquito plants" in newspaper inserts in your Sunday paper, but a wider variety of colors and scents are available on the web.