Scented plants were extremely popular in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. People grew them in their gardens and on windowsills. Today, bright colorful flowers hold the public’s interest and we do not often see plants grown primarily for their fragrance. Scented geraniums (botanically classified as Pelargoniums), while not as showy as their modern hybrid cousins, the zonal (P. x hortorum) and Martha Washington (P. x domesticum) geraniums, are delightful and charming. The scented varietes are attractive, easy to grow plants that release their fragrance when touched.
Scented geraniums are native to coastal South Africa. The first plants to arrive in Europe were brought by Dutch traders in the sixteenth century. Several species exist in the wild and hybridization has taken place over the long time since they were brought into cultivation. The second picture from the top, above, is of P. graveolens, known as ‘True Rose’. It dates to 1787 and is one of the oldest still grown today. It has a healthy, robust habit and delightful rose scent. ‘Grey Lady Plymouth’ is illustrated in the third photo from the top. It dates from 1802 and is a P. graveolens hybrid with a rose, fruit and spice scent. Its leaves are beautifully cut and margined with a thin white line. The very rare ‘Skeleton Rose’, also known as ‘Dr. Livingston’ is another old P. graveolens hybrid from the nineteenth century or earlier, with beautiful, deeply cut lemon and rose-scented foliage. This variety seems to prefer soil with a lower pH (more acidic) than the others. The top photo shows foliage and flowers of ‘Fair Ellen’ an old hybrid of P. quercifolium and has, as you would expect from the Latin name, oak-shaped leaves, scented of rich fruit and spice. The bottom photo shows potted scented geraniums wintering on a cool porch. The plant on the right is ‘Skeleton Rose’. On the left is the rather large velvet-leaved P. tomentosum known as ‘Peppermint’. It has a true mint scent. This variety is the most sensitive to heat and is the first to curl its leaves and wilt if it is in too hot a location. Many more species and old hybrid scented geraniums exist, but they are hard to find. I am collecting them as I come across them (and when I have the cash to buy them). Many scents and hybrids were once available, including: apricot-scented, nutmeg-scented, filbert-scented, spice-scented, lemon-scented, apple-scented, almond-scented and orange-scented. Louse Beebe Wilder, in her wonderful book ‘The Fragrant Path’, reprinted as ‘The Fragrant Garden’, mentions a person she knew as a child who owned a collection of over 100 varieties of scented geraniums. In her book, she lists 18 species and hybrids still available years later— in 1932. She complained that many had disappeared or were very hard to find. This seems true today, though plants are available from two sources that I can recommend: Logee’s Greenhouses http://www.logees.com and Select Seeds http://www.selectseeds.com. Both of these sources are in the eastern U.S. Seed for scented species can sometimes be sourced; this season I have started seeds of P. grassularioides, the coconut-scented geranium. Seed came from Terroir Seeds htpp://www.UnderwoodGardens.com.
Scented geraniums are not difficult to grow. They prefer a somewhat cool, sunny atmosphere and a medium level of humidity. A sunny south facing window on a cool porch is very much to their liking in winter. That season is a rest period for the plants. Do not water them very much in winter, but let them almost wilt; then water. I make an organic soil mix with compost, bone meal, greensand, wood ashes and sharp sand or perlite (1/4 to 1/3 part of the potting mix, for excellent drainage). My plants really like this mix and I never need to fertilize. In early spring growth begins and picks up speed into summer, so watering is increased. It is best to let the plants become nearly dry— avoid overwatering. During the heat and bright sun in summer, some of the plants may begin to flag, so it is best to put them in an east window or provide light shade and a cooler location. I repot my scented geraniums once a year, unless growth warrants additional repotting. Otherwise, it is best to do so in summer. Softwood cuttings can be made anytime from April through July. If a plant is repotted in early autumn, cuttings may be taken then also.