Understanding the Difference Between
Geraniums and Pelargoniums
What a topic! There are hardy geraniums also known as cranesbills or storksbill, ivy or trailing geraniums, pelargoniums, seed geraniums, zonal, scented, regal and variegated geraniums. Is your head spinning yet? You are not alone, so many of the customers I talk to every day at Milner Village Garden Centre ask questions about this very common plant with many different names.
It’s time to get it straight and I hope this post will arm you with the information you need the next time you walk into a nursery to buy this annual ( and/or perennial ) favorite.
Understanding the Name.
Geraniaceae is the family name of this species of plants. This family includes both the genus Geranium and Pelargonium ( there’s Erodium too but let’s not confuse things further! ). To keep it simple, think of the difference between the two according to their hardiness. Geraniums are thought of as perennials that come back year after year, Pelargoniums are their annual cousins that can be semi hardy in some climates but in general are sold for one seasons use.
Let’s start here. This is the TRUE geranium by its genus name. But all plants have both a Latin Botanical name and a ‘common’ name (or the one the regular folks call it), so you may know hardy geraniums as Cranesbills named for their long slender seed heads.
These are reliable perennials that make great fillers in garden beds. They can tolerate shade and are low fuss beauties that are perfect for native or natural themed gardens. The flowers of these plants are somewhat non-descriptive as they are no where near as showy as the annuals your used to buying in spring at garden centers, but true geranium lovers will disagree… these are a perennial garden staple!
Now these need a little more dissecting to understand them all. Some are upright, some trail, others are variegated with small flowers while others are grown for their pungent scent, (which I love by the way!)
- Seed Geraniums– As the name suggests are started from seed. They take longer to bloom, the flowers and leaves are generally smaller and they don’t get much higher than a foot or so.You will see these labeled at the nursery as ‘seed’ geraniums and they are usually sold completely green in little plastic cells. I plant seed geraniums in my garden beds for their later flowering habit. They may take a long time to put on size, but near the end of summer when other annuals are declining, my seed geraniums are filled in and continue to flower until the first hard frost. Seed geraniums are single flowers that produce and drop seed that can grow again next year.
- Zonal Geraniums– These are grown from cuttings and are one of the biggest spring crops grown in the nursery industry. I have the luxury of working for a massive grower, Darvonda Nurseries, where I manage their retail store that I mentioned above. The picture below is a walk through one of the greenhouses during spring…. oh yes, lucky me! Flowers are doubled and frilly but produce no seeds. They are actually clones from the mother plant so they are exact replicas and true to type when grown. These are the ones you find in garden centres in full color in spring and will grow up to 18″. Generally they are used for one season but if they are in a happy spot, they can come back the next year.
- Regal Geraniums– Also known as Martha Washington Geraniums, have the showiest blooms and velvety scented leaves. They prefer the cooler temperatures of spring and fall but if watered well during the hot months they will thrive. I know gardeners that will only plant this type and when you see them you’ll know why. In some climates they are semi hardy, but here in the north, treat them as annuals. Of course if you want to give your green thumb a try, you could take a cutting and keep it by a sunny window for winter.
- Ivy or Trailing Geraniums– Perfect for window boxes, hanging baskets or sprawling across a garden bed, these geraniums have distinct glossy ivy like leaves that can grow several feet long. Not only can they cascade over planters, but they can be trained to climb as well. I love using these in my hanging baskets every year.
- Scented Geraniums– Flowers on these varieties are not as showy as the others, but where they lack in flamboyant blooms they make up in their delicious scents! The leaves vary from rose to lemon to downright pungent when gently brushed. Some varieties are grown and sold as natural mosquito repellants for their heavy citronella scent, while others have names like Chocolate Mint or Apple. Every garden should have one of these… you’ll enjoy a little break from weeding to bend over, give the leaves a gentle squeeze and inhale the aroma when you pass by.
- Fancy Leafed Geraniums– or variegated, are available in several of the varieties from Zonal to Ivy. Basically these are appreciated for their beautifully colored leaves ranging from white tipped edges to dark central blotches. One of my favorites is the ‘Vancouver Centennial’ with its deep bronze centers and bright orange star like flowers.
So there you have it. I hope this post answered your burning questions about Geraniums and Pelargoniums and resolved the confusion surrounding this massive genre.
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