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annual gardening, annual garden design

CRAVING CRANESBILLS



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Elisabeth Ginsburg
You need this in your perennial border.

Collectors everywhere know what it is like to have a quest—an ongoing hunt for the one little porcelain box or wheat penny or 1950’s lunchbox that will make it all worthwhile. A good part of the joy of collecting in the search for the missing pieces that will fill in the collection. For some people the hunt is everything, and there are even those collectors who will sell off a completed collection because the thrill of the chase is over.

As a gardener I am also a collector, to the extent that space and financial resources permit. From time to time I add to my collection of hybrid musk roses. I am picky about my hybrid musks, choosing only those bred in the first third of the twentieth century by the Rev. Joseph Pemberton, an English clergyman. The one exception to this rule is ‘Buff Beauty’, an exquisite cultivar bred after Pemberton’s death by Anne Bentall, the wife of the cleric’s gardener.

I am just starting to collect lungworts (Pulmonaria), which I love for their spotted leaves and lovely blue or pink blossoms. Lungworts are ideal collector’s plants because they are small, thus allowing even people with miniscule plots to amass many different species and cultivars. If I had space and a talent for robbing banks I would also acquire Chinese tree peonies, which have huge silky blossoms in a range of beguiling shades. Simply looking at one makes you want to babble superlatives in Mandarin.

But for me the Holy Grail of plant collecting is Geranium renardii. This smallish flowering plant is one of many hardy geraniums that are useful in an array of gardening situations. I first saw this paragon of horticultural virtue in an English garden magazine, and I was immediately smitten. It was highlighted as a "noteworthy" plant, and photographed in a particularly entrancing way, with a single blossom backlit like Barbra Striesand in one of her more recent movies.

Geranium renardii is a low-growing plant, reaching 1-foot tall at the most, and spreading 1-3-feet. It has the same incised leaves as other cranesbills, but its leaves are silvery-green. One of the plant reference sources maintains that "foliage, rather than flowers, is the main attraction with this perennial Geranium." I beg to differ. The flowers are small, but lovely, cream to ivory in color, with an almost opalescent quality. Each petal is veined in purple, and, from certain angles, the blossoms seem almost pansy-like.

Having experienced love at first sight when I glimpsed Geranium renardii, I set about trying to obtain one. Hardy Geraniums have grown increasingly popular in recent years, so there are plenty of them in the catalogs. I found lots of Geranium striatum, Geranium catabridgiense and one of my favorites, Geranium macrorrhizum; but not a single renardii. In desperation I turned to the celebrated Heronswood nursery. One of Heronswood’s founders is a fabled plant hunter, and I figured if Hersonswood did not have Geranium renardii, no one would.

Heronswood had some 74 cranesbill species and cultivars, but no Geranium renardii. In despair I browsed the web, and found that a few other gardeners were apparently engaged in the same quest. At long last I found the object of my desire, on the website for a nursery in Sharon, Connecticut. I grabbed feverishly for my credit card, ready to make an instant commitment. Imagine my horror when I found out that I could not order Geranium renardii online, over the telephone, or even through the mail. The only way to get this much-desired item is to travel to Sharon, Connecticut and pluck one (or two or three) from a nursery pallet.

Some people may consider driving all the way to Connecticut to obtain a single cranesbill profligate in terms of both time and money. Still, this is one urge that I must satisfy. In a week or so, when the weather in Connecticut becomes more temperate, I will go to the nursery in Sharon. Neither rain nor snow nor the Highway Patrol (of New Jersey or Connecticut) will stop me. I will get my cranesbill. When the thrill of the chase is over, and I have it back in my home garden, I will coddle it, watch it anxiously, and, hopefully admire it when it bursts into bloom. With any luck it will be like other hardy Geraniums and increase over time, so I can give divisions to my gardening friends. As with all good things, Geranium renardii should be spread around.

Once I have lots of Geranium renardii, I think it would be marvelous to interplant them throughout my collection of pulmonaria, and mass them at the feet of my hybrid musk roses. After all, collections are meant to be displayed.

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