Meet the real geraniums

Geraniums. The word brings to mind images of baseball-size red or orange flowers that are boldly held above bright green scalloped leaves. They’re a lot like lollipops of the plant world — sweet but bland. But the real name for those plants is Pelargonium, and when the first autumn frost arrives, they turn to mush because they are annuals. True geraniums are hardy perennials that return to the garden each year with a flush of handsome leaves. In spring and early summer, they can be covered with flowers that are pale pink, blue, purple, violet, rose, magenta or pure white.

These versatile, undemanding and long-lived plants serve as ground covers, thrive in shady and sunny sites, and can produce large mounds or vase-shaped clumps of leaves and stems that scramble and weave through nearby plants. Another plus: Rabbits and deer seldom bother them.

"You can find geraniums for literally every area of the garden from shady areas to sun," says Robin Parer, author of "The Plant Lover's Guide to Hardy Geraniums" (Timber Press, 252 pages, $24.95). Parer owns Geraniaceae (

There are more than 400 species of geraniums that can be found growing in cool temperate areas of the world. They grow in the woodlands of North America, as well as in Central and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, the Himalayan Mountains, the French Pyrenees, northern Turkey, Iceland, from northeastern Afghanistan to Kashmir, China and elsewhere. Their common name — cranesbill — refers to their beaklike fruits.

“Some geraniums have brilliant colors,” Parer said. “We’ve got 48 different types of blue, purple and lavender. The blue is lovely, and there are a few white flowers. There’s a huge number of pinks. They’re not terribly fashionable at the moment, but I have hopes.”

Besides geranium species growing in the wild, there are countless cultivars — plants that have been produced by selective breeding. Parer’s book describes more than 140 types suitable for gardens, but one in particular, Geranium ‘Rozanne’ has sold more than 6 million plants as of 2016 and is one of the most widely planted.

“I just came back from England in June and brought 71 (different) geraniums back,” Parer said. “I must be sick. I spent two days in a barn in Wales with friends, washing the roots of the plants for shipping back.”

Geraniums charm homeowners and landscape designers with their lengthy flowering period — as much as five weeks or more, which is exceptionally long for any perennial. Some geraniums put out a flush of bloom in the spring and then flower sporadically during summer. Others offer scarlet or brilliant red leaves in the fall. Depending on the cultivar, they can range in height from 6 to 24 inches.

Most geraniums tend to do best with morning sun and afternoon shade. Others thrive in full sun. Provide them with a free-draining soil enriched with compost and keep them watered, especially during drought, and they’ll be off to a great start. Once they’re established, little maintenance is needed. Geraniums also tolerate a wide range of soils, but they don’t like growing in low areas during winter where the water can collect around the roots.

At the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, there are about 80 different geraniums currently represented in the garden’s collections. Jacob Burns is curator of herbaceous perennial plants there. “Geraniums are an important collection because they’re a favorite landscape plant and they have multiple attributes,” he said. He has developed a detailed list of 180 different geraniums for the garden’s collection, which has the largest number of geranium types in the United States. Pressed to name a favorite, Burns says, “For unique flower color, I like Geranium phaeum. It’s an underused species with dark purple flowers — almost black.”

Geraniums can be used in a foundation planting, under trees or with shrubs and other perennials. Their finely cut leaves show off to great advantage when paired with the large leaves of hostas.

“Geraniums are a supporting cast, and you need that in the garden,” Parer says. Their flowers all have five equal-size petals that range in size from 1/2 to 2 1/2 inches wide. “I really like wildflowers and the quality that hardy geraniums bring to the garden,” Parer said. “The flowers are simple, by and large, but there are a few that are double. There’s something calming about single flowers.”

Most geranium flowers have veins in light, dark or contrasting hues. Plants may produce more flowering stems over the summer, but if the stems become untidy, you can cut them back a few inches. “You get the blast in spring, cut them back, forget about them and look at something else,” Parer says.

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