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Growing Scented Pelargoniums

These coveted collectors' plants have pleasing fragrances, unusual leaves, and delicate flowers

Pelargonium ‘Lady Scarborough’ is grown for its pink flowers and the mysterious strawberry fragrance of the foliage. Pelargonium ‘Lady Scarborough’ is grown for its pink flowers and the mysterious strawberry fragrance of the foliage.

Subtlety has its place, but plants that have a knockout scent will always have a home in our garden. Though our greenhouses are cramped and crowded, we simply can’t resist adding more scented pelargoniums, also known as scented geraniums. Pelargoniums have been collected since Europeans discovered them in the 1600s. Of the 250 species, only about 20 have scented foliage, but breeding of these has led to hundreds of cultivars.

The scent is contained in small beads of oil produced in the leaves. Bruising or brushing the leaves releases the oils into the air and onto your hands. Water evaporating from the leaves will also waft the fragrance throughout a room.

There are several classic categories of pelargonium scent: rose, mint, citrus, fruit, nut, and the ever-indefinable catchall category, pungent. These are arbitrary classifications and are often very subjective. You will not always agree with someone else’s description. For instance, coconut pelargonium (Pelargonium grossularioides) is sweetly scented, but we have never detected any hint of coconut in the fragrance.

We have never sniffed a scented pelargonium that didn’t appeal to us in some way, but we do, of course, have our favorites. We love the strong fragrance of the rose-scented pelargonium (P. ‘Graveolens’). Another old standby we can’t resist touching whenever we walk by it is peppermint pelargonium  (P. tomentosum). Its broad, velvety leaves make it our grandchildren’s favorite as well. We also find it necessary to have the crisp citrus-scented pelargoniums (P. citronellum), including ‘Mabel Gray’ and other cultivars like ‘Frensham’, ‘Lemonaire’, and ‘Bitter Lemon’ in our collection.

Scented Pelargoniums

P. 'Attar of Roses' P. 'Attar of Roses'

Scented Pelargoniums
Pelargonium spp. and cvs.
(pel-ar-GO-nee-um)

• About 20 of the 250 Pelargonium species are grown for their unusual fragrances and are referred to as scented pelargoniums or scented geraniums.
• They are tender perennials that can be brought indoors for winter as houseplants.
• Pelargoniums prefer a well-drained garden soil with ample organic matter.
• Keep mulch away from the stems to help prevent stem rot.
• Apply a liquid fertilizer regularly throughout the growing season.
• Site them in the full sun in all but the hottest and driest climates.
• Propagate by stem cuttings.

Are scented pelargoniums the same as scented geraniums?

Pelargonium is both the common and the scientific name for these plants. In the United States, they are frequently called geraniums, but this can be confusing, since that name is also used for distinctly different plants in the same genus. For this reason, we always refer to them as scented pelargoniums, though it is not uncommon to hear them called geraniums.

Foliage and flowers can be bold or petite

The lavender flowers of P. ‘Attar of Roses’ pair well with Artemisia stelleriana ‘Boughton Silver’ and Hall’s woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus ‘Hall’s Variety’). The lavender flowers of P. ‘Attar of Roses’ pair well with Artemisia stelleriana ‘Boughton Silver’ and Hall’s woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus ‘Hall’s Variety’).

Of course, choosing among scented pelargoniums has as much to do with leaf shape and color as it does with scent. Leaves can range in length from the scant 1/2 inch of P. ‘Juniper’, to the 5 inches of P. ‘Chocolate Peppermint’. Some are almost circular (P. grossularioides), while others are gently lobed (P. ‘Variegated Oak Leaf’) or finely dissected (P. ‘Pungent Peppermint’).

Leaves are most often green but may also be golden, gray, or even silvery. Some are splashed or edged with white or cream (P. ‘Lady Plymouth’) or have golden variegations (P. ‘Charity’). Others may have purplish blotches in the leaf centers or along the veins (P. ‘Fair Ellen’). The texture of the leaf surface can be smooth, rough, or velvety.

Most scented pelargoniums have five-petaled flowers grouped in small umbels. The petals are arranged with two at the top and three at the bottom and range in size from just 1/8 inch (P. grossularioides) to more than 1 inch long (P. ‘Roger’s Delight’). The colors are usually white, rose, or purplish pink. The upper two petals are frequently blotched or stippled with darker maroon or purple markings. Plants tend to bloom most heavily in early spring, then intermittently throughout the summer.

Pelargoniums are perfect in the ground or in pots

P. crispum P. crispum

The subtle and delicately colored flowers and foliage of pelargoniums are easily intermingled throughout the home landscape. Though true perennials, they can be grown as such only in frost-free regions. Still, they can be bedded out as annuals and are a welcome alternative to pansies, petunias, marigolds, and their overused pelargonium cousins, the brightly flowered zonal geraniums (Pelargonium x hortorum). Varieties like the apple-scented (P. odoratissimum) and nutmeg-scented pelargoniums (P. ‘Nutmeg’) form neat mounds that are perfect for edgings and along walkways. They can even be used in a rockery.

As wonderful as they are in the ground, pelargoniums are perfection in pots. When they are planted in pots, you can get up close and appreciate the varied leaf shapes and flowers, not to mention the scent. Some lend themselves quite well to topiary. Our favorites for standards are P. crispum, P. crispum ‘Major’, and P. crispum ‘Variegatum’. Crispum means curled or wavy and describes the edges of these plants’ small, crinkled leaves. Small-leaved cultivars are best for standards because they produce heads of dense foliage. A good choice for a container is the rapidly trailing peppermint pelargonium, which can even be trained up a trellis. Other trailing plants for containers include strawberry (P. ‘Lady Scarborough’) and lemon (P. ‘Roger’s Delight’).

P. 'Pungent Peppermint' P. 'Pungent Peppermint'

Anything with an adequate drainage hole can be used as a container. Good potting mixes contain ingredients like peat moss, pasteurized compost, and perlite, which ensure both moisture retention and excellent drainage. Use a timed-released fertilizer in the soil or an all-purpose liquid fertilizer when you water. Pelargoniums like magnesium, and a teaspoon of Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) added to each gallon of fertilizer solution every few waterings will adequately supply this nutrient. As with plants in the ground, place containers in the full sun. When temperatures get above 90°F pelargoniums appreciate some afternoon shade.

The best reason to grow scented pelargoniums in pots is that you can easily bring them indoors for the winter. Do this before outdoor temperatures drop below 45°F, to avoid shocking them. Place them in a south-facing windowsill that gets at least four hours of direct sunlight a day.

Prune for desired shape and to propagate

P. crispum ‘Variegatum’ is lemon scented, with tiny leaves. It is most commonly grown as a standard. P. crispum ‘Variegatum’ is lemon scented, with tiny leaves. It is most commonly grown as a standard.

Whether you grow your plants in pots or in the ground, regular pruning is necessary to keep them shaped. Begin shaping a plant when it is a newly rooted cutting. When it has grown a few nodes, cut off its tip to encourage branching below the cut. Repeat this sequence for the next few series of growing shoots, until the plant has a sturdy, attractive framework of branches.  

Flower buds are produced at the tips of branches. After you have established the desired shape, stop pruning and allow the plant to flower. After the first and heaviest flush of springtime blooms is over, maintain the plant’s shape by removing old flower stalks and dead leaves and continue to prune off shoot tips if more branching is desired. 

The best time to prune older plants is in late winter or early spring. Cutting back stems by as much as half their length will stimulate new growth and prevent a woody, treelike appearance. This is also a good time to move plants into larger pots or just replace the soil. Cuttings taken during the summer will provide new plants to move indoors for the fall. 

Growing scented pelargoniums is easy for the novice gardener yet offers enough intricacies to stir the interest of an avid plant collector. Any gardener is sure to delight in the heady scent these plants give off. Simply rubbing a leaf of the plant sitting on the windowsill or brushing along the edge of a pathway lined with scented pelargoniums is enough to fill the air with fragrance.

Take cuttings anytime to start new pelargoniums

Select firm, actively growing shoots with three to five stem nodes. Rooting, which usually takes about four weeks, is quickest and most successful when the soil is kept evenly moist throughout the rooting process and the soil temperature is between 70° and 80°F.
Cut the stem just below a node and remove any leaves that would be under or near the soil surface.Click to enlarge imageCut the stem just below a node and remove any leaves that would be under or near the soil surface.
Fill a 3-inch pot with potting soil, firm the soil down, and make a hole with a pencil.Click to enlarge imageFill a 3-inch pot with potting soil, firm the soil down, and make a hole with a pencil.
Place the cutting in the hole, burying one to two nodes, gently firm the soil around it, and water.Click to enlarge imagePlace the cutting in the hole, burying one to two nodes, gently firm the soil around it, and water.

Classic scented pelargoniums

P. 'Roger's Delight' P. 'Roger's Delight'
Apple cider, P. odoratissimum, tiny, white flowers; soft, gray-green foliage; mounded habit
Apple/pungent, P. ‘Fringed Apple’, tiny flowers; white foliage with a fringed or serrated edge; mounded habit
Coconut/pungent, P. grossularioides, tiny magenta flowers; round, deep green foliage; mounded habit
Juniper, P. ‘Juniper’, pale lilac flowers; small, round, crinkled foliage; mounded habit
Lemon, P. crispum, pale pink flowers; small, crinkled foliage; upright habit
Lemon, P. crispum ‘Variegatum’, pale lilac flowers; small, edged with white foliage; upright habit
Lemon, P. ‘Roger’s Delight’, large red upper flowers with paler lower petals; smooth, slightly toothed foliage; trailing habit
Lemon (strong), P. ‘Mabel Grey’, lavender flowers with dark marks; foliage has large, sharp lobes; upright, tall habit
Lime, P. ‘Nervosum’, pale lavender flowers; smooth, slightly toothed foliage; tall, lanky habit
Nutmeg, P. ‘Nutmeg’, white flowers; small, gray-green foliage; mounded habit
Peppermint, P. ‘Pungent Peppermint’, mauve flowers; gray-green, fine, deeply cut foliage; trailing habit
Peppermint, P. tomentosum, small, white flowers; large, velvety foliage; trailing habit
Pungent, P. ‘Chocolate Peppermint’, small, lavender flowers; green, with purple blotch foliage; trailing habit
Pungent, P. denticulatum ‘Filicifolium’, small, lavender flowers; deeply cut foliage; upright habit
Pungent, P. ‘Variegated Oak Leaf ’, large, lavender flowers; large, coarse, variegated cream to white foliage; trailing habit
Rose, P. ‘Attar of Roses’, pale pink flowers; lobed foliage; trailing habit
Rose, P. ‘Lady Plymouth’, small lavender flowers; deeply cut, gray-green, white edged foliage; mounded habit
Rose with lemon, P. ‘Charity’, small, lavender flowers; incised foliage with gold edge; upright habit
Strawberry, P. ‘Lady Scarborough’, pale pink flowers with marks; dark green, trilobed foliage with crinkled edge; trailing habit
From Fine Gardening 82 , pp. 47-51

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