Napa County
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To Brighten Winter Landscapes, Think Geraniums

By Val Whitmyre, U. C. Master Gardener

Geraniums fit beautifully into Napa Valley’s Mediterranean climate. They bloom continually from early April through October. My own bright-red geraniums are stillblooming in mid January, growing in pots on my window ledges.

Geraniums withstand most climate changes here except a hard freeze, but they prefer warm, sunny spots in the garden. Easy to grow with beautiful results, they are good plants for the beginning gardener.

Actually, the plant most people know as geranium is in fact pelargonium. True geraniums, also called cranesbills, are hardy natives of the Northern Hemisphere and are grown in rock gardens or perennial borders. Some are weeds, while others have outstanding flowers in shades of rose, blue and purple. Sunset named Geranium “Johnson’s Blue” and G. “Wargrave Pink” as two of the best new plants in 1996. Five overlapping petals identify the flowers in this family.

Pelargonium, also known as the florist’s geranium, is native to South Africa. Pelargoniums include three main species, including my favorite, the common bright-red potted geraniums (Pelargonium hortorum), the Martha Washington pelargoniums (P. domesticum) and ivy geraniums (P. peltatum). The many scented geraniums are also in the pelargonium family.

Common geraniums recall southern Spain, Italy and other Mediterranean countries where pots of bright blooms in wrought-iron containers adorn many buildings. The flowers are usually solid red, white, pink, orange or violet with soft velvety leaves, while the Martha Washington blossoms have blotches of deep color.

Widely planted and undemanding, pelargoniums are easily multiplied from tip cuttings after winter frost. The stems are succulent and adapt easily to root growth. Simply cut a four- to six-inch tip with several leaves and put it into a glass of water near a sunlit window. Remove any blossoms so that all the plant’s energy is focused on root growth. In no time, roots will sprout.

Children would be delighted with the fast growth of these cuttings. The stem could also go directly into pots of soil with good drainage. Keep the plant in the pot until it shows signs of crowded roots and then transfer to the next largest pot.

Martha Washington pelargoniums reach three feet in the garden and tend to become rangy. For that reason, I prefer growing them in pots. In my garden, plants growing in pots on stands or ledges get more attention than those planted in the ground. I can spot the pesky tobacco budworm faster, and it’s easier to keep the plant and soil clean.

The tobacco budworm is the same worm that eats petunia buds from the inside out, so it’s imperative to find and destroy it before it damages all the blossoms. Removing fadedflowers promotes more blossoms.

There are many varieties of the ivy geranium, producing single and double blooms in pink, rose, red or lavender. These are reliable trailing plants for hanging baskets or in a raised landscape.

The leaves of scented geraniums are far more fascinating than the insignificant flowers. Rose-scented geranium leaves are more heavily scented than most fragrant roses. The chocolate mint geranium has a chocolate-colored leaf bordered in bright green. The common names of these geraniums accurately reflect the leaves’ scent.

The leaves may have zones of red, white, gold, brown and green bordered in different colors. They may be used in sachets, as flavorings in sauces and jellies, or in aromatherapy. The lime-scented geranium (P. crispum) would make a nice accent plant in a bonsai display. Cuttings of scented plants make nice gifts for friends and neighbors.

Move your geranium pots to entries or windowsills to brighten dreary winter days or to surprise a guest with the scent of your favorite “rose.”

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