We are coming to the end of the summer in Melbourne. Leaf-curl Spiders have strung their webs and leaf hammocks throughout the garden and the morning air is decidedly crisp despite the paper’s promise of afternoon heat. These are the first stirrings of autumn in the garden and the deciduous leaves will soon be turning and falling. As Mrs Beeton suggests it is time for the Under Gardener to plan for winter and time to take Geranium cuttings to increase the plants available for display next spring.
1817 Geraniums. Now that the planting-out season may be considered over, attention should at once be directed towards furnishing a supply of plants for another year. The class of plants which will require propagation first are geraniums, of which both the fancy and common bedding kinds must be struck in time to get established in small pots before winter, and the different scarlets and horseshoes and zonal sorts. There is no plant more useful for decorative purposes; many are, besides, deliciously fragrant, and there is none whose cultivation is more simple.
Mrs Beeton’s Garden Management.
Geraniums are great plants! They are fabulously egalitarian growing in just about every garden in Melbourne from the burbs to Toorak mansions. One of the reasons they are so popular is that they are very easy to grow from cuttings; so easy they are practically free. They were swapped and traded by early Victorian settlers and as an ongoing tribute to our convict ancestry they are still stolen from botanic and backyard collections today. I am descended from a man transported from Britain to the Australian colonies for the ‘term of his natural life’ for “using exciting language and inciting men to riot” so I know that crime is wrong – very wrong.
To grow a Geranium from a cutting all you need to do is break a piece off a large plant. If you are doing this by moonlight while hanging over your neighbour’s fence just remember not to make enough noise to wake their Pit-bulls.
Remove three sets of leaves from the bottom of the cutting carefully so as not to strip the stem. Once you have removed these leaves dip the bottom end of the cutting in honey. The honey will help to stop the cutting from rotting and will promote root growth. Then pinch out or cut off the top pair of leaves, make a hole in a pot of soil with a stick or your finger and place the cutting into the soil.
The pots then needs to be keep damp and warm until the next spring. I place the pots on a sunny outside window sill through the winter.
In colder climates the pots will need to be taken into a glasshouse or sunny inside window until spring as Geraniums are not frost hardy.
When is a Geranium a Pelargonium?
If you are interested in learning the difference between Geraniums and Pelargoniums then have a look at this link. Confusingly Geraniums and Pelargoniums (both members of the family Geraniaceae) are commonly called Geraniums. To avoid confusion (and annoy the botanists) I’m going to just call them all Geraniums!
Biodiversity and the Collecting Bug
Geraniums from South Africa were first introduced to Europe in the 1600′s and to Britain via Paris by John Tradescant the Elder in the 1700′s. During the Victorian Era they became extremely popular and the craze for collecting and breeding new hybrids sweep through Europe, America and Australia.
Depending on which book you read there are now some 2000 varieties of Geraniums and you can see in the photograph on the left that there is an enormous variety of flower colour, form and leaf shape available in these genera.
The other reason that Geraniums were so loved by the Victorians is their enormous range of leaf perfumes. It is possible to find varieties that smell like rose, lemon, ginger, cinnamon, mint, incense, pyrethrum, southern-wood, nuts, balsam, apple-cider, nutmeg, orange, coconut and fusions of this list such as minty-lemon or lemony-rose.
The Victorians grew Scented Geraniums along the edges of pathways or placed pots inside in winter where wide crinoline skirts would brush past and release their scent.
I had a go at following the technique for placing flowers in a wide vase outlined in the BBC’s Victorian Flower Garden DVD. Instead of modern green oasis block Victorian Head Gardeners would cut lots of small pieces of English Box and place these in the vase to hold the flowers.
I don’t have any Box in my garden so I cut pieces of Rosemary to hold up the smaller Geranium flowers. I think it works well but it would look neater if I had cut all the pieces very short and evenly.
In the Kitchen and Household
The Victorians used Scented Geraniums to make flavored sugars. I have a Lemon Geranium in my backyard which smells just like Lemonade Icy Poles. Australians will know exactly the smell that I mean. I guess the smell is just about the same as Lemon Verbena but fizzy.
To make the flavored sugar all you need to do is layer the Geranium leaves in sugar and seal in a jar for two weeks in a warm spot. As I have learnt from bitter experience it is a good idea to make sure that you have flicked all the insects off the leaves before entombing them in sugar. You then sieve out the leaves and use the sugar to flavor desserts or dust on cakes.
In Denise Greig’s book Scented Geraniums and Pelargoniums she describes how the Victorians flavored cakes with Geranium leaves. So I had a go by placing Rose Geranium leaves at the bottom of a buttered cake tin before pouring in Plain Cake batter.
Once the cake was baked I peeled off the cooked leaves, placed fresh leaves on top of the cake and sprinkled over icing sugar. I think this makes a nice pattern on the cake. So did it taste of Rose Geranium? Well no actually; not to me. The Master of the house said that he could taste a faint herby rose flavor which he liked. Not sure I would try this again unless I find a really strongly rosy Geranium.
While doing the research for this article I came across what looks like a fabulous book, A Passion for Pelargoniums, by Anne Wilkinson. In one of the extracts of the book that I read online Anne describes the Scarlet Geranium as Charles Dickens’ favourite flower and one that he frequently wore.
Unfortunately this book has not been published in Australia and mysteriously we can no longer buy books like this via Amazon (what’s going on Amazon?). So my family in the UK will help out by sending it to me. I just wanted to share my frustration in not being able to get me hands on this book immediately!
The extracts speak tantalizingly of the Victorian craze for collecting plants and the criminal lengths that people would go to to get their hands on that elusive Geranium specimen. I have read about the wanton Orchid and the Orchid thieves in their thrall. Who ever would have though that the gentle Geranium so frilled, flounced and proper could excite such passions? There is something so addictive about the Scented Geraniums. I can feel the irrational need to seek out and find that Apple-Cider scented one – I need it now and I don’t know why! There is a Dark-Purple Flowered Geranium in a house around the corner from me; when you see me on the news being carted away in a police van you will know that it was all in the name of Victorian authenticity – your Honour!