Brush against the mounds of lacy leaves, and get a whiff of lemon or maybe the essence of a rose. The fragrance is distinct and definite, but the origin, elusive. Look no further than the scented geraniums, where an aromatic surprise awaits in every pot. "I love to grow them for their fragrance," says Bobbie Cyphers, owner of The Herb of Grace in Hot Springs, North Carolina. "They all flower, and the blooms are extremely beautiful, but it's their fragrance that gives you a lot of joy."
Scented geraniums claim kinship with the boldly flowering geraniums (Pelargonium sp.) common in summer gardens. The difference lies in their demure flowers and leaves packed with a redolent punch. "Rub their leaves gently between your fingers to release the essential oils and get their full effect," Bobbie recommends.
The diversity of these geraniums is enormous. "They're like a whole garden in one type of plant. The leaves go from the little tiny smooth ones of the nutmeg spice up to the huge grape-leaved ones with a musky scent," Bobbie says. Choose any number of rose, citrus, fruit, or spicy selections, each wearing its own unique perfume. "The 'Attar of Roses,' an old-fashioned rose-scented geranium, is probably the first that people pick, because it really does have that whiff of rose when you rub the leaves," she explains.
Bobbie recommends growing these geraniums in containers. The secret to success lies within the pot. The container must have a drainage hole and be filled with a porous, fast-draining potting soil. "While scented geraniums need moisture, overwatering will kill them quickly," she says. "I have seen my plants recover from too little water, but they die very quickly from too much."
Provide a bright location, with early-morning sunshine and protectionfrom hot afternoon rays. As light increases, the need for moisture will also grow. Keep the soil evenly damp, but never allow the pot to sit in water. Brown, crispy leaves are the telltale sign of dryness. If they appear, remove them, and increase the amount of water.
During summer months, scented geraniums grow vigorously. Trim them regularly to maintain full, lush plants. "Keep them nice and shrubby," Bobbie says. "I prune mine quite a bit to keep them from becoming leggy. Pinching them back gets the fragrance all over your fingers, and it smells wonderful all day."
The More, The Merrier
These plants have been collected and shared since Victorian times. One reason is their easy rooting habits. After pruning scented geraniums, save a few cuttings to propagate. Fill pots no larger than 3 inches in diameter with soil. "For rooting, I like to use potting mix with a lot of sphagnum peat moss," Bobbie says. "I mix it half and half withperlite to increase air circulation around the new roots."
Clip a stem, 3 to 4 inches from the tip, right above a leaf. Remove the lower leaves, dip the cut end into rooting hormone, and push the stem securely into the soil. Place the new plant in bright light, and keep the potting medium moist until the cutting has established roots.
Come On In
When summer ends and frost is imminent, bring your favorite scented geraniums indoors. "Place them in a cool room with high light, and they'll thrive beautifully," says Bobbie. Water requirements remain the same, with the geranium needing moist soil. Indoors, the plant may dry more slowly, so adjust your watering schedule accordingly.
Scented geraniums may be the ultimate plant for all seasons. With dainty flowers and fragrant, lovely leaves, these sturdy plants grace the garden in summer, then move willingly indoors for winter. A word of caution--once you have one, you'll be hooked on all the perfumed possibilities.
"Scented Geraniums" is from the June 2001 issue of Southern Living.