As the saying goes “a rose by any other name will smell just as sweet” but the geranium has been living with a name for a few hundred years which is not even its name!! It definitely suffers from identity crisis.
In simplified terms, it all started with the explorers. Yes, blame them. Geraniums and Pelargoniums both belong to the Geraniacae family, a word which comes from the Greek word geranos, meaning a crane, which describes the long-beaked “fruit” of the geranium plant. The fruit of the geranium is an elongated capsule with a beak-like tip which is filled with 5 seeds and resembles the crane’s bill, hence the name cranesbill. A subdivision of the Geraniacae family was named pelargos, which means a stork, another Greek word to describe this breakaway family’s fruit. Hence, the name Pelargonium. So, somewhere along the line, someone got their birds mixed up and couldn’t tell the difference between a crane and a stork, and therefore the Geranos family and the Pelargos family became one in the eyes of horticulture, even though they are as different as the Giannopoulos’s and the Papadopoulos’s. The Dutch East India Company was responsible for first sending the ancestors of our present geranium species from South Africa to Europe in the earliest decade of the 1600s, and that continued throughout the century. It wasn’t until the late 1700s that French botanist, Monsieur L’Heritier, recognised the differences between the major groups of the Geraniacae family, but by then the damage had been done and the incorrect naming continues to this day.
During the 1800s, a wealthy England, with an upper class which could afford to maintain glasshouses filled with rare plants and gardeners to tend to them, cultivated and improved the plant. Hundreds of new varieties were introduced before WW1 stopped all geranium breeding activity in 1914. In the interim, the convict ships took with them geraniums as a reminder of home. The plant adapted well to the new country and the plants went with the pioneer women to the Outback, being grown in kerosene tins by the back doors of every conceivable type of housing, and surviving the droughts by having the teapot slopped over them.
Fast forward to the present day and we now have 5 main types of Pelargoniums of every hue and colour. If you would like to see these plants in all their hue and glory, and add a piece of history to your garden, the South Australian Geranium and Pelargonium Society will be holding its Annual Spring Show on Saturday, 20th and Sunday, 21st October 2018 commencing at 10am at the Payneham Library Complex, Corner O.G. Road and Turner Streets, at Felixstow. There will be plant sales, Devonshire tea, a trading table, and members available to answer all your questions. The entry cost is $3. Further information on these beautiful plants can be found on the SAGAPS website, or Facebook at Geranium and Pelargonium Enthusiasts of SA.
Written by Julie Booth – Committee Member, South Australian Geranium and Pelargonium Society.
Photos by Pauline Allman – Committee Member, South Australian Geranium and Pelargonium Society.