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Pelargoniums {geraniums} Their History and Impact on Horticulture

Updated on August 9, 2015

Regal pelargonium variety 'Karl Offenstein'



Pelargoniums are a familiar and much loved group of plants which brighten our gardens, homes and greenhouse..They belong to the order of plants known as the Geraniales. They are placed in the family Geraniaceae and the genus Pelargonium.

The genus name of Pelargonium derives from Pelargos meaning a stork this alludes to the form of the seed capsule before the seeds ripen, which bears a fanciful resemblance to the shape of a stork's head and beak.

The Order Geranials can, for all intents and purposes, be divided into three main sections The Pelargoniums or Stork's- bills, which have irregular flowers, The Geraniums or Crane's-bills, which have regular flowers and the Erodiums or Heron's-bills which have five stamens.

The showy species familiar to our homes and gardens are the Pelargoniums many of which are natives to South Africa. Here in the UK, the Pelargoniums are referred simply as Geraniums {the True Geraniums are the Crane's-bills}. Their beauty and showy blooms make them a very tempting addition to any garden or greenhouse or indeed as a pot plant to brighten the home. They differ from the Crane's-bills by having irregular petals, the absence of glands, and the upper sepal being furnished with a spur, which, however, is not very conspicuous among the growth of the stalk. In common with the Geraniums there are ten stamens, however, three to six of these are always without anthers. The genus is divided into a number of sub-genera. The flowers are borne in umbels. The leaves are as rule arranged opposite to each other and the umbels are produced on long stalks..

Pelargonium grandiflorum

Favourite flowers of the garden and greenhouse {1896-97}
Favourite flowers of the garden and greenhouse {1896-97}

History of the Pelargonium

It is thought that the first species worthy of note to the gardener appears to have been P.triste {night scented Geranium} imported from the Cape in 1632. triste is from Latin and means dullcoloured alluduing to the flower colour. Not many other species during the 17 th century until the latter part when P. capitatum and P.cucullatum {1690}, P.alchemilloides {1693} and P. myrrhifolium {1696} were introduced to England.

It was during the 18th century that most of the important species were made known such as P.petatlum {1701} and P.zonal {1710, P.gibbosum {1712}, P.angulosum {1724} and P.graveloens {1724}. P.endlicherianum was a later introduction which was introduced from taurus {Turkey} in 1855}

There was a period in our horticultural history which saw selected crossing, inter crossing and recrossing of the Pelargonuim species which produced a number of hybrids. It was carried out in such a way that it became impossible to state what relationship existed between the hybrids and the original species. Thus many of the original species were gradually lost to our gardens and greenhouses.

Even the hybrids had to be separated into different groups by horticulturists according to certain characteristics. Even today if one needs to keep up to date with these hybrids it is necessary to visit the nursery of latest flower catalogues. Below I attempt to name a few principle species from which most of the these varieties have been produced.

Ivy leaved Pelargonium

Favourite flowers of the garden and greenhouse {1896-97}
Favourite flowers of the garden and greenhouse {1896-97}

Principle species from which many hybrids have been produced.

Pelargonium angulosum {the specific name means angled}, had stems three feet long and formed a large bush type. the flowers that this species produced were coloured purple with darker streaks. It was this species that produced one of the parents of the Ivy-leaved section of Geraniums.

P.capitum { the specific name means growing with heads and alludes to the large flower heads}. the foliage of this species is heart shaped, but with three to five obtuse,toothed lobes. Flowers rosy purple in dense flowering umbels.

P. graveolens {the specific name means strong smelling} this is the 'Oak leaf Geranium' which also has heart shaped foliage , which are deeply lobed, giving a strong sweet small when touched They produced small rose purple flowers.

P. laterpipes { the specific name means side footed} is the Ivy-leaved geranium, with foliage which are thicker than others and have five angled lobes, the margins are not toothed . The flowers vary in size and colour they may be white, pink,or red. The stalks which produce the flowers are very long.

P. zonal {the specific name means girdled or banded} was the horse shoe Geranium. the foliage is produced on long stalks, strongly zoned with a horse shoe shaped band giving the plant its common title. the flowers are scarlet. This was the principle parent of the Scarlet or Zonal geranium.

Zonal Pelargonium

Favourite flowers of garden and greenhouse {1896-97}
Favourite flowers of garden and greenhouse {1896-97}

Cultivation tips

The favoured method of propagation is by taking cuttings this is the simplest way. it also has the advantage of producing new plants that will be the same as the parent plant, in foliage and flower colour. Collecting seeds from existing plants is easy enough to achieve, and the seeds will germinate readily. However, the use of such seeds is not always beneficial for they some times revert back to their ancestral forms.

The cuttings should be inserted into a sandy soil with a good deal of drainage material employed. If they have a tendency to grow tall, the top of the stem should be taken off which will help them to become bushy. They do not require any water until they show new growth a sure sign that they have rooted. The Ivy-leaved types are ideal for hanging baskets.

Pelargoniums in warm conditions will flower almost continually, but they are frost tender. they tend to dislike very hot humid conditions . Well drained neutral to alkaline soil is preferred and a sunny site that offers at least twelve hours of daylight is required for good flowering.

Dead -head the flowers frequently and they need feeding regularly if grown in pots or tubs, do not over water. Plants may be kept through the winter in the greenhouse or conservatory by cutting back in autumn-winter to five inches and repotting.

PROBLEMS---the Problems that can occur with Pelargoniums apart from fungi rot due to over-watering or very wet conditions are viruses. A number of viruses may bring about varying symptoms, however, these days Virus-free stocks are available to the gardener. One of the viruses is the Pelargonium leaf curl virus. This is a bit of a misnomer for the virus does not cause the leaf to curl but produces pale yellow spots which later may become a more intense yellow colour and star shaped. These symptoms tend to be noticeable in spring on cuttings taken from the previous year and are not seen as the new foliage develops. Remove and destroy affected leaves.


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    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 4 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      aviannovoice, Hi Deb Glad to have brought you back some happy memories. Thank you for visiting and for leaving your appreciated comments. Best wishes to you.

      jillofalltrades, nice to see you here my friend, and thank you for your very kind comments. You will always be welcome 'back home' here. Best wishes to you.

    • jill of alltrades profile image

      jill of alltrades 4 years ago from Philippines

      Hello David,

      It's so nice to see you back here with another highly informative and beautiful hub! Voted up, useful and beautiful!

      I have not been here as often as I used to, but I do drop by every now and then. I'm always happy to see that some old friends are still around. It's like coming home to a nice, familiar place.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I recall growing up, the my mother used to favor lemon and other nice smelling geraniums. You brought back a few memories.

    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 4 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Zsuzsy Bee,

      Nice to meet you. Pelargonimums are indeed beautiful flowers and the flowers vary greatly in these modern times with their colour, size and beauty. Thank you for your kind comments they are appreciated. Best wishes to you.

      DDE, hello,

      Geraniums will flourish well in your country and their beauty is rewarding for very little effort on our part. Best wishes to you.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      A beautiful flower with many interesting facts, I have geraniums in my garden, and a South African flower that flourishes in the tropical gardens

    • Zsuzsy Bee profile image

      Zsuzsy Bee 4 years ago from Ontario/Canada

      Ahhhhh Geraniums, my favourites the bright paprika red. They are the easiest and definitely the most showy plant in my flower beds. They don't even mind the strong winds that I have whipping around here. They're the first to go into my flower-beds every spring and the last to come out.

      Great hub marked Up, useful and interesting. Thank you for sharing.

      regards Zsuzsy