Courtesy of David Steele Wakefield Geranium & Fuchsia Society


                                  There are five main groups of plants in the geranium family (Geraniaceae). This identification of botanical variations has evolved over more than 200 years. Botanists, of course, have little difficulty in recognising the five groups, but gardeners have called them all geraniums for so many years that many people are confused about the various groups, especially the pelargoniums and true geraniums.


 Geraniums are referred to as cranebills because their seed pods resemble the beak of a crane. Their name comes from the Greek word ceranos,meaning crane. These plants are the hardy perennials that flower in the herbaceous borders and gardens during the summer months. They vary in size from the tall G. psilostemon, which grows 90cm to 1.2m (3-4ft) high, down to the low ground covering G. macrorrhizum at around 30cm (12 ins) or the pretty rock plant G.cinereum "Ballerina" at 10cm (4 ins) high. Cultivation is straight forward and they are tolerant of different soils and conditions, but most prefer an open, well drained soil. Propagation can be from seed, cuttings or root division depending on the particular variety or species. 


 The name erodium comes from the Greek word erodius, meaning heron, because the seed resembles the beak of a heron, and they have been called heronsbill in the past. There are about 60 species found growing in the temperate areas of the world. Many are hardy in this country, but some need protection from frost or heavy rain and are best kept in a cold greenhouse or frame during the winter. They prefer sunny well-drained garden situations and a sandy soil, although E. pelargoniflorum, a white flowered erodium about 30cm (12 ins) in height, seems to grow almost anywhere. 


This section of the family has about 250 species that grow in the sub-tropical areas of the world, the majority in the Cape region of South Africa. The name comes from the Greek word pelargos, astork, although few people would call them storksbill nowadays. The best known varieties are the zonal group, P.hortorum, popularly called "geraniums" when grown in gardens and greenhouses. We have large,  dwarf and miniatures, rosebuds, stellars and cactus flowered plants in this
group. Next come the lovely regals, P.domesticum, freely recognised and called pelargoniums by most gardeners. These are followed by the increasingly popular angels, plus unique and scented leaved P. peltatum varieties,
which grace our baskets and window boxes.


 This group of around 50 species are known only to the botanists or specialist plant collector. Their beak-like fruits qualify for inclusion in the family geraniaceae and they were named by the famous botanist Linnacus after Lady Anne Monson. Leaves and stems are thin and covered with small hairs, flowers tend to grow singly and last only for a short time. For example, Monsonia emarginata produces pale yellow flowers in summer that last for only about 24 hours, but the seed pods are quite interesting. Monsonias need a warm greenhouse and good light.



                In the seventeenth century, a colony was established in South Africa, and soon plant hunters were finding interesting plants to send back to Europe. Initially the interest was medicinal, but peope began to appreciate the new and beautiful flowers being discovered and "stove plants" became fashionable among wealthier people.

                  Pelargoniums were found growing in a variety of conditions,but always warmer than Europe. Plants were found with fibrous, tuberous and tap roots. The top growth on some scrambled through other plants, so that the stems were up to six or seven feet long while others were short and bushy. The flowers were single and simple with five petals. Colours ranged from white to dark red. hen the different plants were brought together in greenhouses it was found they crossbred easily and new plants were created. By the middle of the nineteenth century there was great competition between people who could afford to employ large teams of gardeners to have the most spectacular displays, and nurseries developed many hundreds of varieties.

                     The First World War changed everything with most able bodied men off to war and the gardens and greenhouses were needed to produce food. After the war, fashion changed in gardening as in other ways of life, and it wasn't until the 1950's that pelargoniums came back into fashion as more people became interested in growing flowers again. New varieties such as stellars came from Australia , and many new varieties from America, so now we are spoilt for choice. Many old varieties have been saved, but often the name is lost and I have found the same plants with different names in different nurseries. So even when looking through specialist catalogues it can be difficult to be sure what you are ordering.


        In the middle of the 1850's, a coal miner who lived in  Derbyshire who was a great enthusiast of Pelargonium's, planted his garden in late May. he was then struck down by the dreadful lung disease silicosis. He then had to spend the next few months in his bed fighting the illness. It was not until mid September that he was able to get out and look around his garden, which had suffered badly due to neglect and the effects of a dry hot summer.

               Many of his plants had died either through lack of water, or burning up through continuous hot sun. Looking at what was left of his Pelargonium's, he was mystified about one plant, normally a bright red zonal with very dark green leaves. This plant he found had shrunk to a small size, but still seemed to be thriving. He took cutting's of this plant for the next season. 

    He showed these to a friend, a local nursery owner, and they decided to grow as many as they
could for the next year. They gave the plant the name "Red Black Vesuvius", and they went on sale to the public for the first time in 1858. This was the birth of the first miniature. Red Black Vesuvius is still seen on the show bench today and wins prizes. Since 1858 many new varieties of miniatures have been bred. The probable cause of the plant to mutate in this way is an apparent genetic change which takes place due to extreme stress in some plants.

                    Some years ago Mr Frank Read of Norfolk, a well known breeder of many famous varieties, had some rooted cutting's sent by a business associate in America.These were sent by parcel post. They took about three weeks to arrive, and when the the parcel was opened only two had survived the journey, and both were in a very poor condition. After a struggle they survived and produced two healthy plants. One of these plants was very tiny, and just never seemed to grow. After a while it flowered and Mr Read used the pollen from it to cross with a full size zonal. The resultant hybrid seeds produced more small sized plants. It was found that whatever plants were crossed with the original small plant they always produced small offspring's. These all later became known as the famous"Norfolk Dwarfs". Miniatures were crossed with full size zonals and then the half way size plants were produced which are now known as Dwarfs. 

          The size of the pot and height of the foliage of miniatures and dwarfs are laid down in the pelargonium rules for showing. To grow a good miniature or dwarf for showing it is advisable to take cutting's in May, root them, then grow them on until the end of August, when you cut them back to about half their total height. After they have recovered from being cut down, put them in the final pot size they need for showing. Give good light and encourage them to grow slowly. Spray them with a fungicide, as a protection against botrytis and other fungal diseases. In the spring make sure the plants grow into a nice even shape, and pinch out until sometime in March. 

        Pick the flower buds off until about ten weeks before the show date, and then three weeks before showing. Pick off all fully open florets to encourage the buds to all open at the same time. These times need experimenting with to produce the best results. A really hot spell of weather can ruin your plants by making the flowers open early before the day of the show. Conversely, a prolonged cold spell just before the show might mean the flowers have not reached fully opened for the show.

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