Pe­largo­ni­ums & gera­ni­ums

You say gera­nium… but re­ally it could be pe­largo­nium. Still, there are many rea­sons to love them both.

NZ Gardener - - Contents - STORY: CAROL BUCK­NELL

A plant-lover’s guide

for­mal plant iden­ti­fi­ca­tion can be a con­fus­ing busi­ness. Botanists of­ten change their minds about which genus a plant be­longs to, lead­ing to the use of a va­ri­ety of botan­i­cal names, de­pend­ing on which nurs­ery or gar­den cen­tre you fre­quent. And then there is the plethora of com­mon names to con­tend with. This is not a recent phe­nom­e­non. It has hap­pened for cen­turies in the world of hor­ti­cul­ture, ever since the first plant hun­ters start­ing tak­ing plants from around the globe back to Europe.

Such is the case with pe­largo­ni­ums and gera­ni­ums, both part of the Gera­ni­aceae fam­ily and both orig­i­nally clas­si­fied as be­long­ing to the same Gera­nium genus due to the fact that their seed capsules are sim­i­lar. Even though the two were sep­a­rated into two gen­era some 250 years ago by French botanist Charles L’Her­i­tier, many grow­ers and gar­den­ers, par­tic­u­larly in the US, con­tinue to call pe­largo­ni­ums gera­ni­ums.

What’s the dif­fer­ence?

The flow­ers of gera­nium and pe­largo­nium are not the same. Gera­nium flow­ers have five sim­i­lar petals; pe­largo­nium blooms have two up­per petals which are dif­fer­ent from the three lower petals.

True gera­ni­ums, of­ten called cranes­bill gera­nium or hardy gera­nium, are mostly found grow­ing naturally in the east Mediter­ranean and other tem­per­ate re­gions in­clud­ing New Zealand. There are around 422 species in the Gera­nium genus, many of them flow­er­ing an­nual, bi­en­nial and peren­nial plants. We have eight na­tive gera­nium species that have been for­mally iden­ti­fied, pos­si­bly up to 20 al­to­gether. The most well-known is Gera­nium traver­sii from the Chatham Is­lands and the most re­cently named is Gera­nium aff. retror­sum ‘Oak­ley Creek’, dis­cov­ered in Auck­land by botanist Rhys Gard­ner dur­ing a study of the Oak­ley Creek area prior to the con­struc­tion of the Water­view Tun­nel.

Within the Pe­largo­nium genus are peren­ni­als, sub­shrubs, shrubs and suc­cu­lents. All up, there are around 280 species. They’re mainly found grow­ing naturally in a range of habi­tats from moun­tains to deserts in the south­ern re­gions of Africa, par­tic­u­larly South Africa and Namibia. The Pe­largo­nium genus also ex­tends to north­ern and eastern parts of the African sub­con­ti­nent, the Mid­dle East, Turkey, Aus­tralia and New Zealand. Our lit­tle-known na­tive species, also na­tive to eastern Aus­tralia, is k¯opata ( Pe­largo­nium in­odo­rum) which has tiny pink flow­ers and bright green fo­liage. Most of the pe­largo­nium plants cul­ti­vated in Europe and the US

orig­i­nated in South Africa. These are not gen­er­ally frost hardy and are of­ten planted as an­nu­als in colder cli­mates.

Pe­largo­nium pas­sion

The first pe­largo­nium in Europe was

Pe­largo­nium triste. It ar­rived at Lei­den Botan­i­cal Gar­dens in the Nether­lands around 1600, with cut­tings taken to France and Eng­land soon after.

En­thu­si­asm for the species had grown rapidly by the mid-18th cen­tury as Dutch and British plant col­lec­tors took home seeds and plants from south­ern Africa to grow in nurs­eries in their re­spec­tive coun­tries.

How­ever, as the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion changed in Africa and plant col­lect­ing be­came more dif­fi­cult, at­ten­tion fo­cused on breed­ing hy­brids in Europe. In the Vic­to­rian era, pe­largo­ni­ums were ea­gerly sought-after by gar­den­ers and nu­mer­ous cul­ti­vars were pro­duced in Eng­land, Europe, Aus­tralia and the US, par­tic­u­larly Cal­i­for­nia which had the ideal cli­mate for cul­ti­va­tion (sev­eral species have nat­u­ralised on the coast there). Many of the early hy­brid cul­ti­vars have now been lost al­though pe­largo­nium and gera­nium so­ci­eties around the world are try­ing to recre­ate them.

Pe­largo­ni­ums had be­come vic­tims of their own suc­cess by the end of the 19th cen­tury, with well-known fig­ures Wil­liam Mor­ris and Os­car Wilde de­rid­ing what was then known as the scar­let gera­nium, used ex­ten­sively as a bed­ding plant in bor­ders, win­dow boxes and pots at that time. De­spite be­ing seen as sub­ur­ban and bour­geois though, the flow­ers re­fused to go away, says Ka­sia Boddy, au­thor of Gera­nium (2013). Now they’re one of the world’s most pop­u­lar plants once again, par­tic­u­larly in the US and Europe where they are prized as bed­ding and con­tainer plants.

Pe­largo­nium groups

Opin­ions dif­fer on the num­ber of groups within the Pe­largo­nium genus. The Royal Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety lists seven, but the fol­low­ing five are the most com­monly grown.


This is the largest and most com­mon group, of­ten described as bed­ding gera­ni­ums and seen in win­dow boxes and pots ev­ery­where in Europe. The name comes from the par­ent plant

Pe­largo­nium zonale but they are usu­ally re­ferred to as Pe­largo­nium x

hor­to­rum, a hy­brid of Pe­largo­nium zonale and Pe­largo­nium in­quinans. Zon­als are iden­ti­fied by the dark­coloured zones or pat­terns in the cen­tre of the leaves. Most are sem­ishrubby plants that tra­di­tion­ally pro­duce red, salmon, vi­o­let, white or pink blooms in tight, rounded clus­ters, usu­ally dou­ble or sin­gle. How­ever there are sev­eral other flower types, in­clud­ing cac­tus, rose­bud and tulip.

As well as con­tainer plants, smaller, com­pact zonal forms are of­ten used as bed­ding plants. Look out for new colours in this group such as a yel­low cul­ti­var called ‘All­woods Lemon Driz­zle’ (all­


Fancy-leaved pe­largo­ni­ums have strongly de­fined leaf pat­terns, some­times dark blotches or a type of white, grey or yel­low leaf variegation, oc­ca­sion­ally both. They’re grown as much for their leaves as their flow­ers.


Orig­i­nat­ing from Pe­largo­nium

pelta­tum, these have a trail­ing growth habit that makes them ex­cel­lent ground­cov­ers and climbers to cover fences and other struc­tures. They’re also of­ten grown in hang­ing bas­kets, pots and win­dow boxes.

Their ivy-shaped leaves are waxy, al­most suc­cu­lent, some with var­ie­ga­tions.

Flow­ers of ivy-leaved pe­largo­ni­ums can be sin­gle, dou­ble or rosette. New cul­ti­vars with stun­ning flower colours are now com­ing onto the

mar­ket, for ex­am­ple ‘PAC Tom­cat’ which has dark bur­gundy flow­ers.


This is the sec­ond largest group, so named be­cause they were raised at San­dring­ham Palace in the mid19th cen­tury. Re­gals, also known as Martha Wash­ing­ton pe­largo­ni­ums in the US, are dif­fer­ent to Zonal types in that plants are larger and more shrub-like. Their rounded, some­times lobed or par­tially ser­rated leaves usu­ally have no zon­ing coloura­tion.

Re­gal flow­er­heads on tall stems are large and flam­boy­ant, with a much more ex­ten­sive colour range than other groups, some even bi-coloured or tri-coloured. Petals can be ruf­fled or fringed.

Re­gals are some of the ear­li­est pe­largo­ni­ums to flower in the spring but don’t bloom well in very hot, hu­mid con­di­tions. Mod­ern cul­ti­vars have big­ger flow­ers and plants won’t be­come as strag­gly as they age like older Re­gal pe­largo­ni­ums do.

Many of these older Re­gals are dis­ap­pear­ing from spe­cial­ist nurs­eries. Most of the cul­ti­vars cur­rently grown are the re­sult of hy­bridi­s­a­tion dur­ing the last 50 years.

Of­ten classed as a sep­a­rate group are Angel pe­largo­ni­ums (mostly de­rived from Pe­largo­nium crispum) but they are very sim­i­lar to Re­gals, just more com­pact and bushy. Flow­ers have a pansy-like ap­pear­ance.


As their name sug­gests, this group of shrubby ever­green peren­ni­als are mainly grown for their fra­grant fo­liage. The scent is emit­ted when the leaves are touched or bruised.

Flow­ers, al­though small, have a del­i­cate beauty rang­ing from deep crim­son to pale pink.

Heights are vari­able: some grow to over a me­tre; others only reach 30cm. Tip prun­ing can eas­ily help con­trol height.

Scented-leaved pe­largo­ni­ums are very drought- and heat-tol­er­ant. Over 400 years of plant breed­ing has pro­duced 140 va­ri­eties with an im­pres­sive range of per­fumes. These in­clude rose, lime, lemon, nut­meg, peach, lemon, cin­na­mon, eu­ca­lyp­tus, grape­fruit, al­mond ginger, nut­meg, oak, pep­per­mint, straw­berry, bal­sam, apri­cot, co­conut and ap­ple. Not sur­pris­ingly, many are grown com­mer­cially for their oil, which is used by the perfume in­dus­try.

Leaves can also be used medic­i­nally as well as for pot­pourri, cook­ing, jams, even popped into a cold drink. Many are great plants for at­tract­ing pollinators to the gar­den.

In­ter­spe­cific pe­largo­ni­ums

In recent years, plant breed­ers in the US have cre­ated a new class of pe­largo­nium by cross­ing Ivy-leafed gera­ni­ums with Zonal types. Said to pro­vide new forms and colours as well as bet­ter per­for­mance, these in­ter­spe­cific pe­largo­ni­ums, such as the Caliente and Cal­liope se­ries, com­bine the heat tol­er­ance of Zon­als with the su­pe­rior flow­er­ing abil­ity of Ivy-leaved types (up to a third more blooms than Zon­als).

Zealan­dia Hor­ti­cul­ture sup­plies ‘Big Red’, one of the US-de­vel­oped Cal­liope se­ries to New Zealand re­tail­ers. “We have found this to be a su­perb grow­ing plant which pro­duces masses of beau­ti­ful, deep red flow­ers with the most in­tense colour­ing you will find in the mar­ket,” says its na­tional sales co­or­di­na­tor Aaron Black­more. “The plant it­self has good vigour and will form a de­cent-sized bush that, at ma­tu­rity, will pro­duce more qual­ity flow­ers than any con­ven­tional va­ri­eties that we have grown. “

Another red-flow­er­ing in­ter­spe­cific called ‘Cas­siopeia’ will be re­leased this year by In­ver­cargill-based Hayes Whole­sale. Founded by Barry Hayes 35 years ago, the com­pany is the largest sup­plier of pe­largo­ni­ums in the coun­try as well as the New Zealand rep­re­sen­ta­tive for ‘PAC’ va­ri­eties from Ger­many.

Gera­nium phaeum ‘Rose Mad­der’.


Pe­largo­nium x hor­to­rum ‘Mrs Strang’.

Pe­largo­nium ‘An­geleyes Vi­ola’.

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