Crammed with rich fragrance, these tender plants are essential for any sunny patio or courtyard.
Most pelargoniums hail from southern Africa and were collected by early European explorers. Lots of scented leaf pelargoniums were brought to London at the end of the 18th century.
Sir Joseph Banks, director of King George III's garden at Kew, sent one of his gardeners, Francis Masson, to South Africa. He cadged a lift with James Cook and was instructed to return with a collection of plants for the royal gardens. Two years later, in 1774, Aberdeen-born Masson returned with a goodly haul of 500 species. He wrote in his diary: "The whole country affords a fine field for the botanist, being crammed with the greatest number of flowers I ever saw of exquisite beauty and fragrance." Two years ago, my botanist son was equally impressed by the number of pelargoniums he saw growing wild in Table Mountain – the same species I molly-coddle here. Two of the pelargoniums in Masson's collection that we still enjoy today are P quercifolium, with its balm-scented leaves, and pine-scented P denticulatum.
Victorian gardeners often treated pelargoniums as annual bedding plants and, though this dull gardening style lingers, it's much better to enjoy pelargonium species as perennial pot plants. Have them in the garden in summer and bring them under protection in winter. If you don't have a greenhouse or conservatory, it's easy to take cuttings for the following year, which takes up very little space indoors.
Scented leaf varieties can fill large containers, growing to upwards of 60cm, but others do well in hanging baskets or smaller pots. Whichever varieties you choose, put them where you can get close to their leaves. There's a range of perfumes – lemon, orange, rose, pepper, chestnut and more. Complement the scent of other flowers and shrubs by placing your pelargoniums close to them.
Position pelargoniums so you can easily brush or come into contact with the leaves, which releases their scent. I have some pots of Dorcus Bingham and Sweet Miriam on a bed by a flight of steps up to the terrace, so I can enjoy a whiff of lime and rose balsam every time I pass. Others sit on a raised bed in the patio, again within easy reach of my nose. Most pelargoniums need a sunny spot for maximum scent. You can get away with slight shade in warmer, more southern parts, but not here in Scotland.
Place your containers so a shrub's scent blends with its neighbours. Attar of roses works well close to rose or lavender bushes. Its upright stems grow to 45-60cm, with a spread of almost one metre. Some branches will happily loll over the side of a bed. The tri-lobed green leaves provide a delightful waft of rose perfume and the pale pink-lilac flowers keep going for months. On a hot day, P capitatum True Rose will release its fragrance to blend with nearby roses. This taller-growing pelargonium has violet/lavender flowers, with darker feathering to the upper petals. The all-important leaves are rounding, not lobed, and almost feathery to the touch.
Several varieties have an orange, citrus or grapefruit scent, so are well-placed near herbs, especially as they add an exotic note to some desserts. Dr Westerlund's green, deeply lobed leaves give a whiff of lemon, while the more compact Birdbush Julie Anne has a strong lemon zest tang. And don't forget Birdbush's flowers – pale lilac, with striking deep plum veins.
If, like me, you need dianthus flowers in the garden, its clove fragrance is well complemented by woody pelargoniums. Brunswick's sweet cedar scent or Fair Ellen's spicy, oak scent do well. Brunswick's leaves are oak-shaped, while Fair Ellen has dark veining on its soft, hairy and slightly sticky leaves.
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