In the centuries before sewers and daily bathing were common, rank odors were everywhere. That is probably why Europeans were so excited when scented geraniums (Pelargonium spp.) first arrived from their native South Africa in the early 17th century. With aromatic leaves exuding the fragrance of roses, citrus, or spice, the plants were immediately pressed into service as weapons in the ongoing battle against undesirable smells.
Scented Geranium History
Some of the earliest scented geranium specimens were shipped to Holland by the Dutch East India Company and found their way into the hands of Dutch plant breeders, who propagated and cross bred them. Rose-scented types, especially the intensely fragrant Pelargonium graveolens ‘Attar of Roses’, were eventually produced in mass quantities for the perfume industry. By the Victorian era, the number of varieties had exploded, and the fragrant plants had become garden and conservatory staples. After a dip in popularity in the 20th century, the attractive and intoxicating plants are enjoying a renaissance, with 80 or more varieties available from specialty nurseries, like Mountain Valley Growers.
Scented Geranium Types
Scented geraniums are members of the Pelargonium genus, just like the common backyard and window box flowers that gardeners have loved for generations. In the case of fragrant types, tiny hairs on leaves and stems produce the various characteristic scents.
The plants are loosely grouped into five fragrance categories, including: rose, citrus, mint, spice and “pungent” (with overtones of camphor, eucalyptus, or other strong, woodsy or medicinal aromas). The rose, citrus, and mint fragrances seem to be the strongest, with others like apricot and chocolate, registering more subtly. A fifth category, oak-leaf, comprises varieties bred from the Pelargonium quercifolium species, featuring oak-like leaves that bear distinctive, sometimes citrusy, or pungent scents. In all cases, the scents are most noticeable when you rub leaves between your fingers, or brush by the plants on a sunny day.
While common geraniums are grown for their big, showy flowerheads, scented types feature smaller blooms and rely largely on the allure of sweet-smelling leaves. Those leaves vary from small and deeply dissected, like those of the classic lemon-scented P. crispum , to the scalloped and almost tomato-like foliage of the heavenly-smelling P. graveolens ‘Rober’s Lemon Rose’. Plants can be relatively slender and erect, or short and squat, and some varieties may sport variegated leaves. A few, like P. x fragrans ‘Logeei’, feature a cascading habit that works well in hanging baskets. The unscented flowers bloom in shades of cream, pink, red and purple, with bi-colored varieties marked with contrasting blotches.
Some of the most popular scented varieties include: Pelargonium graveolens ‘Lady Plymouth’, with large, cream-edged leaves and a rose fragrance; P. ‘Citronella’, with a lemon scent that is reputed to repel mosquitoes; P. graveolens ‘Old Fashioned Rose’, with purple flowers and an intense rose fragrance; P. fragrans ‘Old Spice’, reminiscent of the famous men’s cologne, and ‘Apple’, with a distinctive fruity aroma.
Growing Scented Geraniums
Scented geraniums are easy to grow and can get along well in a sunny window in cold winter climates. Most appreciate a summer vacation outdoors—either in containers or garden beds– beginning when night temperatures rise above 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
To grow these fragrant plants, start with a good potting mix, like Fafard® Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed, lightened with an equal amount of Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost. Unglazed clay pots work better than plastic ones, allowing the soil to dry out more quickly. Water only when the top of the soil feels dry. Fertilize bi-weekly with 1/2 teaspoon of water soluble fertilizer per gallon of water. In winter, when plant growth slows, discontinue fertilizing. Prune plants periodically to maintain fuller growth.
The Victorians found that fresh rose or lemon geranium leaves added distinction to foods. The flavors are not overwhelming, but lend delicate notes to cakes, custards and other baked goods. Bury leaves in a closed sugar container for a few days and then use the flavored sugar to enhance the taste of teas or cold beverages. Elsewhere in the household, dry the leaves until crumbly to hold their scents in sachets and potpourris.
As landscape plants, scented geraniums work especially well in herb gardens, containers, and raised beds. For maximum enjoyment, position them close to paths or entry areas, where visitors can brush the leaves and liberate their unique fragrances.
It is thought that geraniums’ scented leaves evolved as a defense against plant predators. Many centuries later, they attract plant lovers.