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Hardy geraniums

 

Cranesbills, that's what we're talking about. The genus geranium and its close relatives, which are perennial in the temperate-climate garden. That's just a disclaimer, because I don't grow the tender geraniums (genus pelargonium), however lovely and scented they may be. Well, OK, they're occasionally featured in the hanging baskets Amy uses to spruce up the patio, but they don't mingle with the mainstream in the garden borders. Maybe they will, one day. But for now, our garden only sports hardy members of the Geraniaceae family. That's cranesbills, and heronsbills (genus erodium, also known as storksbills). Not that I've studied cranes, herons, and storks in sufficient detail to tell their beaks apart, mind you - I'm just repeating what I've been told.

The pretext

Most of our geraniums came from seed, traded from far-flung places, and some from local nurseries and plant swaps. Through the years, we've acquired a good number of varieties - but this page will hardly be a comprehensive overview of all the wonderful species, hybrids, and cultivars on the market. Nope - just the ones growing in our garden. The pretext for putting this page together was a selfish one - I couldn't figure out just in which ways all these superficially similar plants growing around the garden were different from one another. So out came the digital camera, to compare both leaf shapes and flower forms. The project is far from complete - I hope to update this page with better photos of plants already in our collection, as well as with images and impressions of new ones.

Hardy geraniums in the garden

We have members of the family growing in most areas around our property, from shady nooks to sun-baked borders. For the most part, I've found them to be very adaptable. Certainly, some prefer more shade and moisture, while others are more particular about soil drainage - but I've lost very few plants to a mismatch of cultural conditions. The individual plant portraits, linked from this page, give a little more information about the specific requirements of various species.

Making more geraniums

I've never divided geraniums. It probably can be done, but they do a decent job of multiplying by seed, so I've not felt a need to do so. Still, I may wish to create more of specific cultivars such as Okey Dokey, so if you have experience vegetatively propagating geranium species, I'd appreciate your comments (see the form at the bottom of this page).

Even though the garden plants regularly make babies, that doesn't necessarily mean it's easy to grow them from seed yourself. The first difficulty is in collecting the seed. The "cranesbill" for which the plants are named describes the shape of the spikes extending from the fruiting bodies left behind when flowers fade. The seeds are formed in the puffy part at the bottom of the fruiting body. The problem is that the whole assembly was manufactured to serve as a catapult - when ripe, the seeds are flung out of their dry hull using the spring force of connective tissue that runs along the spikey bit (this is not a botanically correct description, by the way). I've received many a trade of geranium "seed" that consisted of a bunch of empty hulls, the real seeds long gone. It's obvious enough when you do have a seed - it's a dark brown, slightly oblong cannonball. Harvest just before they are completely ripe (the pointy bit should be turning brown) or tie a fabric bag around the developing fruiting bodies to collect the salvo. The photo at left shows the fruiting stages of G. wlassovianum, with empty shells in the two structures on the left, and ripening seeds (ready to go at any time) on the right.

When time comes to actually start the seeds (for me, usually in February, early enough to have reasonably sized plants by the time mid-May rolls around) you'll find that some species are easy, others trickier to start. Cold treatments and/or nicking often help to coax them into germinating. Details for individual species are once again featured on my individual plant portraits, linked below.

From tiny to quite large

That describes the size range of the kinds we grow. The smallest one is G. dalmaticum, which we grow in our rock garden, and grows to only about 4" tall. Most of the others I would describe as mid-size, growing to around 18" in our garden (although I've seen some of the same species grow to much larger proportions in gardens that receive more pampering - so don't take my observations as gospel). The largest one we grow is definitely G. psilostemon, which gets to be four foot tall and wider around.

Pretty when not blooming

An important reason for the popularity of hardy geraniums among perennial gardeners is their long season of interest. While all of them have pretty flowers, the majority are almost as attractive when not blooming, and several are grown specifically for their pretty foliage.

The ability to recognize geraniums by their leaf shape was one of my main reasons to start this project. So in the section below, I present photos of the leaves of various species - it's easier to see the differences when you can look at them side by side.

G. asphodeloides has small, tidy, twice-cut leaves, with the first cut quite deep, and an overall rounded shape

G. pyrenaicum also has a very regular round leaf shape, but not as deeply cut

G. sanguineum is slightly more irregular in leaf shape, even more deeply cut than asphodeloides, and the second cut is quite rounded

Leaf shape can be variable. 'Max Frei' is a cultivar of G. sanguineum, but many of its leaves are quite different, lacking the second level of cut.

G. phaeum's leaves are approaching what I consider mainstream cranesbill: divided into five main sections, each of which is jaggedly cut.

G. 'Wargrave Pink' is typical of geranium, this one sporting darker, slightly mottled leaves. We bought it as G. endressii, but some argue it's a hybrid of same parentage as G. x oxonianum.

And indeed, G. x oxonianum 'Claridge Druce' looks similar. Its leaves are fairly large, and somewhat purple-tinged in spring.

G. wallichianum 'Buxton's Variety''s leaves are deeply cut and more widely spread, with fairly soft second cuts.

G. bohemicum's leaves resemble those of wallichianum in shape. They are a little hairier, crinklier, and a fresher shade of green.

The large leaves of G. psilostemon are among the most sharply cut.

G. pratense looks positively frilly, the second level of indentations extending further down the primary lobes.

G. platyanthum moves away from the mainstream, with less jaggedness to the second cut and a slight hairiness

G. macrorrhizum has soft-hairy leaves, fairly typical of the cranesbill clan.

G. macrorrhizum 'Variegatum' features white-splashed leaves, for a rather different overall image.

Erodium, while a closely related genus, features rather different leaf forms. This one is E. manescavii.

Alpine heronsbill is a groundcover with scalloped, small leaves.

Yellow storksbill's finely cut, grayish green foliage is probably my favorite among the erodiums we've tried.

Colorful leaves

The photos above show off the range of greens featured by "standard" geranium plants. But many geraniums also shine with a greater color pallette - some throughout the year, others in fall. I don't have examples of variegated geraniums just yet (coming soon!), but we do grow a purple-leaved variety of G. pratense, named Okey Dokey. The leaves emerge in a dark plum color in early spring, then get a bit greener as the season goes on.

 

 

Fall brings bright colors. Above left, G. wallichianum displays subtle color gradations; at right, G. platyanthum provides a striking technicolor range.

Bounty of blooms

Enough about leaves. Most people grow geraniums for their flowers! The gallery below displays the variety of flower forms and colors of the cranesbills of our garden. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.

G. asphodeloides

G. dalmaticum

G. platyanthum

G. macrorrhizum

G. sanguineum - white form

G. sanguineum 'Max Frei'

G. phaeum

G. pratense - white form

G. psilostemon

G. transbaicalicum

G. 'Wargrave Pink'

G. wallichianum

G. bohemicum

G. pyrenaicum 'Album'

G. oxonianum 'Claridge Druce'

Erodium manescavii

Erodium reichardii

Erodium chrysanthum

I hereby withdraw my one-time opinion that the cranesbills are on the whole rather similar. Although many share a common form, they are quite different in their leaf and flower forms. Of course, that's merely an excuse for me to keep on collecting them. So don't be surprised if this page gets updated rather regularly.

Background reading

Geraniums have been popular garden perennials for a long time, and have lots of devotees. Consequently, there are lots of good sources of information on the internet. A good start is provided by the Open Directory Project's geranium category. For a primer on erodiums, this page from the UK gives a good overview.


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Last modified: October 14, 2011
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