How is it possible that I haven’t yet written about one of my most favorite plant groups: the scented geraniums? Not the hardy geraniums (Geranium) that have aromatic foliage, such as bigroot geranium (G. macrorrhizum), or the ordinary zonal geraniums (Pelargonium x hortorum), which have funky-smelling leaves but are grown primarily for their flowers; I mean the scented Pelargonium species and hybrids grown specifically for their fragrant foliage.
These fascinating plants had their heyday back in the 1800s, then mostly fell out of favor, for some reason. In her 1932 book The Fragrant Path, Louise Beebe Wilder mentions that “Early in the nineteenth century…there were over 200 varieties to be had in England, and I dare say as many in this country….To-day no notice is taken of them at all.” Even over the last few decades, I’ve seen lots of plants come in and go out of favor, but scented geraniums have remained sadly overlooked by almost everyone, apart from a special subset of herb aficionados. That needs to change. Granted, they’re not the showiest plants: Though some have colorful flowers, and there are quite a few options for striking textures and interesting leaf markings, these are not plants that attract attention from casual passersby. They are plants you need to interact with — to touch, and to smell — to reveal their best features. In a large garden, they’re practically pointless; in a small garden, in a path-side planting, or in a container, they are invaluable for creating a memorable experience.
I will always remember when my own obsession with scented geraniums began: back in 1989. It was on a road trip to Connecticut, when a friend and I visited Logee’s Greenhouse in Danielson and then Caprilands, a magical collection of herb gardens in Coventry created by a woman named Adelma Grenier Simmons. By the time we headed home that evening, I had interacted with so many fragrant plants that I couldn’t even distinguish among them any longer. But to this day, any scented geranium has the power to take me back to hours of delight in those endless, plant-packed greenhouses and sun-drenched herb gardens.
It’s not unusual for herbs to smell like other plants: there’s caraway- or oregano-scented thyme, for instance, and lemon or lime balm, and cinnamon or lemon basil, to name just a few. But the scented geraniums offer the widest range of fragrance options, by far, from flowery to fruity to spicy to minty to resinous, and their primary scent is usually indicated in their name. To be fair, you have to be able to use your imagination with many of them. A lemon geranium does not smell like a freshly cut lemon fruit, for example, nor does a rose geranium smell like any particular rose flower — to me, anyway. But once you’ve smelled a particular scented geranium, its scent is likely to be distinct enough for you to recall if you ever smell it again.
My absolute favorite scented geranium for fragrance — and texture, and vigor, and well, just everything — is peppermint geranium (Pelargonium tomentosum).
Those big, furry leaves simply beg to be petted, and in return for that attention, they release a powerful, purely peppermint scent. The plant can be somewhat mounded but mostly has a trailing habit, so it’s terrific in a planter or a large hanging basket or windowbox. It’s bold enough to show off well at ground level, too.
Rose geranium (P. graveolens) tends to be one of the more readily available options in this obscure bunch of plants. Don’t expect a sweet or fruity, hybrid-rose scent: it’s more of a strong, old-rose sort of aroma. The plants are vigorous and bushy — perfect as a filler in a large planter or border.
Lemon geranium (P. crispum) is distinctly different, with small, crinkled leaves on distinctly upright stems.
Another smaller-leaved scented, nutmeg geranium (P. fragrans), is a close second to peppermint in my list of favorites. Its grayish green leaves have a velvety feel and a wonderful scent I can only describe as “warm.” The plants are on the smaller side, so they work well as fillers in container combinations, in pots by themselves, and in hanging baskets.
Apple geranium (P. odoratissimum) is also quite nice: very similar to nutmeg in size and habit, but with an apple-cider scent.
Besides their various fragrances, scented geraniums also offer a wide range of leaf shapes and sizes, from big, broad peppermint and ‘Round Leaf Orange’…
…to more distinctly lobed shapes. There are those with blunt lobes, like ‘Rober’s Lemon Rose’ and oakleaf (P. quercifolium)…
…some with jagged lobes, such as ‘Mabel Grey’…
…kinds with even deeper lobes, such as rose geranium and citrosa geranium (P. citrosum)…
…and types with distinctly lacy leaves, such as ‘Skeleton Rose’ (also known as ‘Dr. Livingston’) and fernleaf geranium (P. denticulatum ‘Filicifolium’).
When you’re planning container or garden combinations with scenteds, give them a bit more visual interest by choosing partners with contrasting leaf shapes and sizes: small with large, for example, and broad with narrow or deeply lobed.
Color isn’t one of the first traits that comes to mind with scented geraniums, but there are some interesting options besides the many shades of green. The scenteds have produced a number of variegated sports in a variety of patterns. Just keep in mind that the variegates can also revert back to their all-green origins, so keep an eye out and remove those ordinary shoots if you want to keep the best show of variegation. Even on one plant, the color and amount of variegation can vary depending on the temperatures and light levels.
Several have grayish to silvery foliage, including ‘Old Spice’ and ‘Peppermint Lace’.
Some also have brown blotches in their leaves. That’s how ‘Chocolate Mint’ got its name, for instance: It doesn’t actually smell like chocolate mint but rather is somewhat minty with chocolate-brown markings (most noticeable in cooler weather).
‘Fair Ellen’ and ‘Purple Unique’ are just two of the others with dark markings.
Flowers are perhaps the least interesting feature on most scented geraniums, though they can add a bit of extra “something” on some. Most are relatively small and in white or dainty pink tints.
Some are more intensely colored, or interestingly marked, though.
The key to getting the best from scenteds is keeping them close, so you can easily rub the leaves and release their aromas. As I mentioned before, growing them in pots and planters — either alone or mixed with more colorful companions — is a great option. That keeps them within easy reach and allows to to grow them on your deck or patio, or next to your favorite garden bench.
Or, plant them along a path so you can pet them as you walk by.
Scented geraniums are right at home in herb gardens and cutting gardens, as well. The leaves are fantastic in fresh bouquets and nosegays, and what a joy it is to harvest and work with them. (Your hands will smell wonderful for hours after!) The leaves also hold their scents well when dried, so you can use them in dried arrangements or potpourri too.
It’s also possible to use scented in the kitchen: in teas or jellies, in baking, or in making flavored sugars. I’ve tried making teas and sugars a few times and have to admit that I’ve never enjoyed the results, but it’s a matter of personal preference. If you enjoy lavender flowers in food, maybe you’d have fun experimenting with some recipes. (Google “scented geranium recipes”; you’ll find lots!)
The hardest part about growing scented geraniums is trying to make sense of the nomenclature. Few sources agree on the botanical names, and there’s confusion even among the common names (the same name being used for different clones, and different names applied to the same plant), so I very strongly recommend buying from a local source if possible. That way, you can meet the plants in person and sniff them for yourself to find those that please you, instead of relying on whatever names are on the pots. Nurseries and greenhouses that specialize in herbs, or that at least have a good herb section, are your best bet. (If you live within driving distance of Lancaster County, PA, I highly recommend Ken’s Gardens in Intercourse, PA. I always buy my scenteds there, because they have an excellent selection of well-marked plants in a variety of sizes.)
If you can’t find scenteds available locally, you’ll have to try mail-order sources and depend on their descriptions rather than the exact names. Some online sources that offer a good selection include Colonial Creek Farm, Geraniaceae, Mountain Valley Growers, Select Seeds, and Taylor Greenhouses. Pick a few fragrances that sound tempting to start, then try a few new ones each year. Even a rooted cutting can grow quickly, and it’s pretty easy to overwinter your favorites indoors, so they are worth the small investment. You could keep them on a sunny windowsill or under lights, but I generally keep mine in my unheated basement just above freezing, with about 3 hours of light a day and just a little water. They look rough by spring, but once I cut them back and set them outside after our last frost date, they regrow in almost no time.
It’s pretty easy to grow scented geraniums from seeds — much easier than trying to find said seeds for sale, as the seedheads fling them some distance when they’re ready, making them tricky to collect. I’ve seen seeds of coconut-scented geranium (P. grossularioides) for sale on occasion: Terrior Seeds has some available as of mid-February 2017. It’s also interesting to note that coconut, apple, oakleaf, and some others can self-sow freely, so if you start growing scenteds, you may end up with seedlings to share, and possibly some interesting hybrids as well.
I’ll meet you back here next month. At the rate we’re going weather-wise, I may have blooms to share for Bloom Day; if not, I’m sure I can think of something else to write about. Until then, think spring!