Scented Geraniums - The Living Potpourri
Rose scented geranium. I have run across this plant in the most unexpected places on this earth. Many years ago I was at the end of a gravel road at a little town high in a rain forest in Panama near a bird preserve, and the tour I was on stopped right next to a little nursery. Of course I immediately went into the little nursery where I told the woman I owned a nursery in America and she asked if I wanted to see her favorite plant – I was expecting some crazy exotic specimen, but what did she show me? The classic Pelargonium capitatum ‘Attar of Rose’ - Rose scented geranium!
I have found scented geraniums again and again on my travels around the world, tucked into quiet gardens and placed into giant expensive planters, used indoors in sunny windowsills and carefully trained into topiaries. And in most locations these plants, mostly originating from South Africa, seem to thrive. They go in and out of fashion and popularity, and I am always surprised when people are unfamiliar with them. It is instant love once they rub their leaves and learn how easy they are to grow.
Scented geraniums are in the genus Pelargonium, and they are grown for their fragrant leaves and different textures shapes and leaf colors, rather than big boisterous flowers that we commonly associate with geraniums. Often when I mention scented geraniums to a newbie the first thing they talk about is the horrible smell geranium leaf has! It is always a pleasant surprise for them to rub a leaf from a rose or lemon scented geranium. Scented geraniums will also have lovely small pink or white blooms, depending on the variety, that are attractive to pollinators, but this is the exception where the leaf outshines the bloom year round.
Scented geraniums are generally easy to grow. If you live in Zone 9 they are hardy perennials, if you are colder you would grow them in containers and bring them indoors in the winter. They overwinter well as houseplants so long as they receive four hours of sun. As a house plant, you could even consider them to be a living potpourri! Insects are not usually a problem for plants grown outdoors, but for indoor plants aphids, spidermites and whiteflies can be an issue. In general, don’t crowd potted plants and keep plants on the dry side, but insects can be controlled organically with yellow sticky traps and insecticidal soap.
There are at least 250 species of Pelargoniums, most of them native to southern Africa, many of them highly scented. This is believed to be a natural deterrent from grazing animals. Only a few of these species are used in the garden, but many have been hybridized both on purpose by man and by insects to produce countless beautiful garden varieties. Some scented geraniums have an easily recognizable fragrance like rose, lemon, apple, peppermint or orange, while others may be more open to interpretation. ‘Apricot’ may smell like apricot to some, but more berry or pungent to others; ‘Variegated Oak’ has a distinct pine scent to me, while others say it is more nut scented. Regardless, they are all tactile and delightful to add to the garden, making it a more interactive space for kids and adults.
Scented geraniums are not fussy plants. If you are growing in containers, choose a soil that will drain well. If you have saucers under the pots, be sure to empty the saucers after each watering so the pots don’t stand in water. A slow release fertilizer can be added (either organic or inorganic) in the early spring and again in mid -summer, and plants can be lightly fertilized during the growing season with liquid fertilizer once a month. During the fall and winter, fertilize once every two months, unless the plant is dormant. Too much fertilizer will result in lanky growth and lacking the intense fragrance that makes the plant so desirable.
If growing your scented geraniums in ground, work compost and amendments into the soil to increase drainage – we like to add EB Stone Soil Booster* to our soil to give a boost of chicken manure, earthworm castings and bat guano. We also plant our scented geraniums on a bit of a mound so irrigation water as well as winter rains will not puddle around the main stem of the plant and cause rot. Add a slow release organic fertilizer early in the growing season, and again mid season, to provide enough fertilizer throughout the spring and summer.
While most scented geraniums prefer at least half day sun, some scenteds love shadier conditions. If you are looking to fill a shady corner of your garden, or a shady pot, some varieties to try are Pelargonium ‘Chocolate Mint’, Pelargonium tomentosum (peppermint), Pelargonium ‘Nutmeg’, Pelargonium ‘Variegated nutmeg’, Pelargonium ‘Lilian Pottinger’ (camphor/apple scent) and Pelargonium ‘The Big Apple’. Many of the variegated varieties of scenteds are also willing to tolerate shadier conditions, especially if they are maintained under drier conditions and given good air flow in the garden.
Prune your scented geraniums when they begin to overgrow a container or its space, or if you find they are growing long single stems that aren’t naturally branching out. You will want to prune back at least several sets of leaves, to just above a leaf node, to shape the plant. Pruning scented geraniums isn’t really a chore – you will find yourself cutting branches to add to cut flowers in a vase, because the foliage will add fabulous fragrance. Whether its flowers from the store, the farmers market or your own garden you will want to tuck in a branch or two of scented geraniums. And you can air dry the leaves and include it in a dried potpourri blend. One of my favorite scented geraniums to add to arrangements is Pelargonium ‘Mabel Grey’. It is a lovely large upright specimen to 3 ft, with big rough textured, maple leaf shaped leaves that smell more like lemon than lemon. It even has showy bicolored pink blooms. It’s one of those plants you could literally rub all over your body.
And of course, you can cook with many of the scented geraniums! As if you needed one more reason to include these plants in your garden! The rose, lemon, lime, orange and mint varieties are all used in the kitchen, especially in sweet dishes and liquid refreshments. The leaves tend to be thick and somewhat hairy, so in general they are infused into a dish and then removed. Fresh leaves can be used for garnishes, and the flowers are also edible. Rose or lemon geranium infused sugar can be substituted for plain sugar in recipes, like sugar cookies, cake or frostings, or jelly, to add a floral or citrus punch. Or steep tea with a couple of rose geranium leaves for a delicate addition of flavor and fragrance.
Finally, some of you are wondering about mosquito repellent properties of scented geraniums. Yes, many of them have citronella in them and are wonderful for repelling mosquitos. Lemon scented geraniums all have some repelling qualities but the best of all is Pelargonium radens ‘Skeleton Rose’ which has heavily bisected leaves and the scent of citronella, but hidden with the soft undertones of rose. This is a large, upright plant in the garden. I often pinch it and remove the leaves to rub directly on my skin while I am outdoors to protect myself from mosquitos. After years of using it I can tell you it works! It would be a worthwhile potted plant to bring on a camping trip.