I grew up with geraniums. So did everybody else. The plants of my childhood were, by and large, red, big-headed, and belonged to the genus Pelargonium. My father and thousands of like-minded people bought their geraniums every spring at the local nursery. They complained about the prices, then took home their flats of young plants and installed them in window boxes, pots on porches and other similar places. The slightly risqué people who lived down the street from us flouted convention by buying bright pink geraniums to match their pink house. It was enough to raise my mother’s eyebrows.
In western New York State, geraniums are tender, so they were not usually planted directly in the garden. When the cold temperatures started to take a toll on the geraniums, people either took the plants inside to repose on south-facing windowsills or left them outside to die of exposure and eventually be carted away by the trash man.
Early in my gardening career, I felt that it was my duty to rebel against the conventions that my parents held dear, so I avoided buying red geraniums, or, for that matter, any of their pelargonium cousins. For years I concentrated on perennial hardy geraniums, with their simple single flowers, deeply incised foliage and ground-hugging habits. Hardy geraniums come in an array of colors that do not include true red and are handy in just about any garden setting. I began to think that I simply didn’t need pelargoniums.
Now I know that I do, and it is all because of a little geranium that I saw a local showhouse. This geranium, which is now a resident of one of my back borders, is a “fancy leaf” variety. While its shape and leaf configuration resemble run-of-the-mill pelargoniums, it is distinguished by its ravishing foliage. Each leaf is cream at its heart, banded with rose in the middle and chartreuse on its ruffled outside edge. The flowers on this plant are orangey-red, and definitely take a back seat to the leaves. In fact, you would have a wonderful spectacle even if you cut the flower stalks off before the blossoms appeared.
Fancy leaf geraniums like mine are “zonal” geraniums, as are most common varieties. The “zone” in question is a dark band on the leaves, which can be extremely faint or quite pronounced, depending on the variety. Fancy leaf geraniums are zonal types that have been bred specifically for their interesting leaf markings.
Geraniums originated in South Africa and began appearing in England in the 17th century [check]. Two hundred years later, the Victorians, with their love of all things variegated, had a passion for the fancy leaf types. There were hundreds of different fancy leaf geraniums in cultivation during the Victorian era, including, “Crystal Palace Gem”, with gold leaves patched with darker green; “Double Mrs. Pollack”, with yellow-green scallops and dark red and orange splotches; and Mrs. Cox, a tricolor with a green heart, purple zone and a creamy yellow edge. These geraniums became part of the bedding-out schemes that were so fashionable in Victorian gardens.
In an effort to acquire more fancy leaf varieties, I went online in search of them. I found a couple of nurseries, Allannah’s Greenhouses (Box 2, Danville, WA 99121, phone 250/442-2552. Send $2.00 for a printed catalog or order online at www.alannahs.com), and Davidson-Wilson Greenhouses, Inc. (Department 10, Rural Route 2, Box 168, Crawfordsville, IN 47933. Send for printed catalog or order online at www.davidson-wilson.com). Between the two companies, there are about 38 cultivars to choose from. Some, like “Vancouver Centennial,” and the white-veined “White Mesh” are equally at home in pots or woven baskets. There are also dwarf varieties, such as “Cherry Time”, which has foliage marked with light green and chartreuse combined with cherry-red double blossoms; and ”Friary Wood”, with golden leaves, chestnut zoning and double flowers described as being a “unique pinkish-mauve” shade.
The best thing about the zonal geraniums is that they are usually easy to propagate from stem cuttings. To do so, remove a stem 3”-4” inches long with two or three leaf nodes. Remove the leaves, dip the stem in rooting hormone (not mandatory, but helpful), pot it up in a 2” pot filled with damp vermiculite, and cover with a plastic bag. Place in indirect light. Within 4-6 weeks, the cutting should begin sprouting roots. You can tell whether this has occurred by pulling gently on the cutting. If it resists, there are roots below the surface. The rooted cutting should be potted up in and placed in a well-lighted spot.
For the best foliage color, avoid putting your fancy leaf geraniums in the sunniest spot in your yard. Save the southern exposures for your roses or peonies, and deposit the pots of fancy leaf geraniums on the north side of the garden. Remember that they will not survive hard frosts, so in the fall either bring in the plant or root some cuttings for winter color.