Friday, April 15, 2011

Plant profile: Pelargonium

"I have learned that the greater part of our misery or unhappiness is determined not by our circumstance but by our disposition."

This quote from none other than the USA's first ever First Lady, Martha Washington, is a valuable but somewhat finger-wagging reminder to keep your upper lip stiff, and look on the bright side, kids.

And if there's any plant that does not suffer from a dejected attitude or lack of spirit, it's the Pelargonium, or geranium as it's commonly known. Common being the operative word! They are not only freely available, inexpensive and easy to propagate, but they also have a Carmen Miranda-ish flamboyance that the early settlers of the US probably loved, giddy as they were with their new-found freedom (haha)!

When geraniums were introduced to the gardening public back in the 1600s, they included the species we now refer to as Pelargonium, or potted geranium, as well as the ones of the true Geranium genus. By the time Pelargonium was split off as its own genus, it was too late to try to change the name that had been in use, and the common name geranium stuck for both genera to this day. Oh well.

Latin name: Pelargonium ("pell-ar-GO-nee-um")

Common name: Geranium
Originally from: South Africa, mostly, though they occur in Australia, New Zealand, Madagascar,Yemen, Asia Minor and two very isolated islands in the south Atlantic ocean (St. Helena and Tristan da Cunha).
Blooms: The entire plant is covered in masses of bright orange multi-petalled flowers in spring.
Light: Full sun, part shade
Water: Rain is plenty. No summer water!
Where to find in P. Garden: We keep ours behind the wrong way sign - they love the heat.

A large genus of 250 species of South African herbs and shrubs, the first Pelargoniums known to be cultivated was Pelargonium triste, from South Africa. Likely brought to the botanical garden in Leiden, Netherlands before 1600 on ships which stopped at the Cape of Good Hope, in 1631, the English gardener John Tradescant the elder bought seeds from Rene Morin in Paris and introduced the plant to England.

In 1738 Johannes Burman introduced the name Pelargonium, from the Greek πελαργός, pelargós, stork, because part of the flower looks like a stork's beak. In fact, the common name for Pelargoniums is Crane's Bill to this day.

To bring this post full circle, when they arrived in the USA is anyone's guess, but one particularly showy type became popular in the early 1900s: The Lady or Martha Washington geraniums (Pelargonium x domesticum) Yes, they're gaudy colored, but as one might paraphrase Martha Washington: "Quit whining!"

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