Plant pro­file: species pelargoniums John Hoy­land rec­om­mends the best species and pri­mary hy­brid pelargoniums

Species plants and pri­mary hy­brids have a del­i­cacy that is far re­moved from the blowsy blooms nor­mally as­so­ci­ated with the Pe­largo­nium genus

Gardens Illustrated Magazine - - Contents - WORDS JOHN HOY­LAND PHO­TO­GRAPHS DIANNA JAZWINSKI

Gar­den­ers are al­ways on the look­out for some­thing new. Ev­ery year ‘im­proved’ forms of old favourites or strange hy­brids in un­ex­pected colours are in­tro­duced. In the rush for nov­elty, species plants, the wild an­ces­tors of gar­den hy­brids, are of­ten over­looked. When I was tak­ing my first, ten­ta­tive, steps down the gar­den­ing path in the 1970s, I re­mem­ber a nurs­ery­man ask­ing why I would be in in­ter­ested in species plants, which were all ‘dull and weedy’, when I could have colour­ful mod­ern hy­brids. Had I been more ar­tic­u­late (and know what I now know) I would have replied that species plants have a ro­bust­ness of­ten lack­ing in their de­scen­dants and that their sim­ple flow­ers have an el­e­gance lost in breed­ing hy­brids. In the past couple of decades gar­den de­sign­ers have also re­alised that species plants com­bine well with other plants to cre­ate a more nat­u­ral look in the gar­den.

The dif­fer­ence be­tween a species plant and a hy­brid can be so huge that the two look un­re­lated. This gap is prob­a­bly great­est be­tween the gaudy flow­ers of hy­brid pelargoniums (the pop­u­lar ‘bed­ding gera­ni­ums’) and the sub­tle al­lure of the wild forms of the genus. There will al­ways be a place for blowsy plants in my gar­den, but the dis­creet charm of species plants is much more wel­come.

There are about 17,000 pe­largo­nium cul­ti­vars, all derived from just a few of the 280 species. The genus is di­verse and in­cludes an­nu­als, peren­ni­als, suc­cu­lents, shrubs and tu­bers that range in height from a few cen­time­tres to sev­eral me­tres. The flow­ers are ir­reg­u­larly shaped, with two up­per petals and three lower ones. The genus en­com­passes an enor­mous va­ri­ety of leaf shape and tex­tures.

One of the traits that at­tracted breed­ers is that many of the species are both florif­er­ous and long-flow­er­ing. The first I grew, P. ion­i­d­i­flo­rum, is cov­ered with sprays of flow­ers from early spring and only stops flow­er­ing when I cut the plant back for

*Holds an Award of Gar­den Merit from the Royal Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety. Har­di­ness rat­ings given where avail­able.

over­win­ter­ing. This abil­ity to pro­duce flow­ers over a long pe­riod can be seen in mod­ern hy­brids.

Many species pelargoniums are grown for their scented leaves rather than for their flow­ers. The most com­mon are ros­es­cented species, such as P. cap­i­ta­tum, and citrus-scented ones, such as P. cit­ronel­lum, which have formed part of com­plex breed­ing pro­grammes to pro­duce scent­edleaved pelargoniums. Pep­per­mint, bal­sam and spice per­fumes are also found in species pelargoniums. The scent from the wild plants is far stronger than that of the cul­ti­vars and hy­brids, and I re­mem­ber a warm evening in the Western Cape when just a few plants of P. cit­ronel­lum filled the air with the sharp smell of lemon.

More than 80 per cent of pelargoniums are na­tive to the south western tip of South Africa al­though P. triste, the first to ar­rive in Bri­tain in the early 17th cen­tury, was known as In­dian storks­bill in the be­lief it came from In­dia. The pow­er­ful night-time scent of its tiny flow­ers – rem­i­nis­cent of jas­mine – caused a sen­sa­tion.

Per­fumed flow­ers is a trait of some species pelargoniums that has been lost in breed­ing hy­brids. Some­times the scent is soft and faint, as in the fringed flow­ers of P. caf­frum, and some­times so heady that it is al­most over­pow­er­ing, and not al­ways pleas­ant P. gib­bo­sum, an un­usual-look­ing plant with suc­cu­lent stems and leaves, has flow­ers with a par­tic­u­larly strong per­fume that a friend has likened to toi­let cleaner.

In the wild very lit­tle hy­bridi­s­a­tion oc­curs, even when species are grow­ing close to each other, but as early as the start of the 19th cen­tury, plant col­lec­tors be­gan crossing dif­fer­ent species. The re­sults known as pri­mary (or species) hy­brids tend to closely re­sem­ble their par­ents, but the same cross can pro­duce dif­fer­ent plants. Both the fiery-red P. ‘Ar­dens’ (see page 53) and the larger pur­ple-red P. ‘Schot­tii’ (page 58) are from the same par­ents. Both were once seen only in the col­lec­tions of en­thu­si­asts but are now, thanks in part to mi­cro­prop­a­ga­tion, wide­spread and pop­u­lar.

Th­ese species and pri­mary hy­brid pelargoniums don’t have the raz­za­matazz of their highly in­ter­bred de­scen­dants but they pro­vide a di­ver­sity of colour, tex­ture and scent that is per­pet­u­ally cap­ti­vat­ing. • John’s rec­om­men­da­tions for species pelargoniums con­tinue over the next six pages.

What A genus of ten­der plants, usu­ally long-flow­er­ing and florif­er­ous, that are the pro­gen­i­tors of the colour­ful ‘bed­ding gera­ni­ums’. Ori­gin Most species are found in south­ern Africa, with a few in east Africa, Aus­trala­sia and the is­lands of...

John Hoy­land is a plants­man and gar­den writer who has gar­dens in both south­east Eng­land and south­west France.

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