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SCENTED GERANIUMS

The following information applies to all varieties. Pelargonium or scented geraniums are aptly described as living potpourri for the home. They are not grown for their flowers, but for their scent. Most are native to South Africa and became popular with Victorians when the colonists brought them back to Britain with them. Unlike other garden plants that are fragrant only when blooming, scenteds are fragrant all year long. The scent is contained in the small beads of oil produced in the glands at the base of the leaf hairs. Bruising or crushing the leaves breaks the beads and thus the plant releases its scent. All are wonderfully fragrant and have a distinctive smell, but to my nose only a few smell like their names: apple, lime, and the lemon geraniums, to be exact. I leave it to each individual nose to determine the smell of each.

Harvest and Use: Scenteds are a fine addition to fresh cut bouquets. Long stems of foliage will keep for 2 to 3 weeks. During Victorian times this foliage was a favorite in tussie-mussies, the traditional, small bouquets from fresh cut flowers.

Scented geraniums, like culinary herbs, have a place in the kitchen. Layer leaves in sugar to flavor. Line the bottom of a cake pan with leaves before pouring in the batter. Dunk bunches in apple jelly before removing from the heat. The leaves can be added to fruit punches, vinegars, salads, and marinades. They combine well with lemon verbena, lemon basil, lemon balm, and mints. Try steeping rose scented, lemon, or ginger leaves in black tea for a treat. Add cloves and slices of lemon and orange to hot or iced tea. Freeze in ice cubes to add to cold drinks later.

Cultivation: Scenteds are not difficult to grow. By following a few easy tips, they will flourish. They grow best in temperatures that range from 50 to 60 degrees at night and 65 to 75 degrees during the day. In frost-free areas they can be grown outdoors all year. They like a fast-draining soil and full sun. When grown in a pot, use a soil-less mix of half peat moss and half perlite. Garden soils tend to pack down and drain too slowly, depriving the roots of oxygen. They like a slightly acid soil close to a pH of 6.5.

They do well in dry areas where other plants might have difficulty surviving. Pathways edged with scenteds give off their fragrance when passer-bys brush against them. Their varied leaf shapes, texture, color, and variegation make them ideal for a window box. Try combining them with nasturtiums, pink or purple petunias, trailing verbenas, and ground ivy. Don't crowd the plants as they need good air circulation. In frost areas, they can be grown as annuals or brought in during winter. They do well on a windowsill. Do not bring them in after the night temperature drops below 45F, as they will be shocked by the warmth, causing leaves to yellow and drop. Scenteds need four hours of sunlight. In lieu of this, fluorescent lights mounted a few inches from their tops will provide enough light. Repot your scenteds every 2 years.

Scenteds are fussy about how they are watered. Over-watering promotes soil-borne diseases and soft growth. Under-watering causes slow growth and yellow-wilted leaves. Water when the top of the soil feels dry. Water until it runs out the drainage holes. This not only wets the soil, but flushes out salts left from fertilizers. Never let pots sit in a saucer of water, and keep water off foliage and flowers to prevent the spread of diseases. Watering in the morning on a sunny day keeps leaves from being wet all night.

Scenteds are heavy feeders of magnesium. A teaspoon of Epsom salts will provide enough magnesium for good growth. During the growing season from April to October, fertilize with 15-15-15 or 15-30-15 mix, applying half the recommended amount every second watering. Fertilize this way every eighth watering the rest of the year.

Except for the few that are compact, scenteds need to be pruned for a full shape. Otherwise, they become ungainly and leggy. Snipping off the tip of a growing stem will force it to grow at the nodes. Pruning should begin once the plant is 4-5 nodes or 6" tall. Snip off the tip with sharp scissors or a razor blade. Shoots will grow within 2 to 3 weeks. Once the plant is shaped to your liking, allow it to bloom. This will take 6 to 8 weeks. Thereafter continue removing browned leaves, excessive growth, and spent flowers. If you wish to propagate new plants, allow the plant to grow beyond where you regularly trim. New growth should be 4 to 5 nodes in length. The best time of the year to prune is late winter/early spring.

Propagation: Most scenteds are hybrids. The few natural species can be grown from seed. You will not find seed in catalogs though, but you can collect your own. Species to grow from seed are: coconut, apple, lemon, old-fashioned rose, and peppermint.

The best way to propagate hybrids is from stem cuttings. It takes about 6 weeks for roots to form. The following explanation of taking stem cuttings is from Scented Geraniums: Knowing, Growing, and Enjoying Scented Pelargoniums by Jim Becker and Faye Brawner.

1. Fill a 2 -inch pot with soil-less mix for each cutting that you plan to take. Very lightly settle the mix with your fingers and then water the pot until the excess trickles out the drainage hole. The soil should now be inch below the rim of the pot.

2. Select a healthy, established stock plant from which to take the cuttings.

3. Select actively growing shoots that are firm, not floppy. You can take cuttings throughout the growing season, but success is more certain in spring and fall. Don't use the older, woody (brown) portions of the stem. Each cutting should include at least three stem nodes, but four or five are better. A node is the point on the stem at which the leaves are attached.

4. With a single-edged razor blade (especially good for thick stems) or very sharp, scissor-type gardening shears, make your cut just above a node on the stock plant. If the stems are long enough and you need more propagating material, you can also take cuttings below the tip. Don't leave a stub: it can become a target for disease.

5. Re-cut the stem to just below its lowest node. This is the spot where root formation is best.

6. Remove the leaves from the stem that will be under or close to the soil surface. It is best to bury at least two or three nodes. Also remove any stipules that are found at the base of the leaf stems, since these can rot if buried.

7. With a sharpened pencil, make a hole in the center of the soil-less mix deep enough to bury the lower nodes and insert the cutting. Settle the soil around the cutting by gently rewatering the pot.

8. Place the potted cuttings in a spot out of the wind and direct sun. If the weather is cool, place them on a heating mat. Rooting is quickest and most successful when the soil temperature is 70 to 80 degrees. The soil should be kept evenly moist throughout the rooting season.

Pests: Scenteds are not bothered by pests when grown outdoors, but should be monitored for aphids, whiteflies, spider mites, and mealybugs indoors. The following spray remedies are listed starting with the lowest ecological impact to the highest: water jet spray, citrus spray, alcohol spray, insecticide soap, liquid rotenone/pyrethrins spray, and horticultural oil.


Ginger-Scented Geranium

Pelargonium x nervosum 'Torento' is a tall, upright, robust plant with smooth, round and slightly toothed leaves. It has large, showy lavender flowers with deep purple markings. It smells like fresh cut ginger with a citrus overtone. General cultivation information above.


Variegated Rose Geranium

P. graveolens 'Variegata' is one of medium height with gray-green strongly indented leaves with silver edges and a clean, rose scent and lavender flowers. Rose-geranium essential oil comes from the species. It is used in jams, jellies, and potpourri. It makes an attractive potted plant. General cultivation information above.


Mosquito Plant

P. citrosa is claimed to keep mosquitoes, black flies, and other biting insects away. It has a refreshing citronella smell and is easy to cultivate. Dark green leaves are deeply indented and it can grow to 3. General cultivation information above'.