scented geraniums (10298 bytes)

Scented Geraniums

By Kathy Brown, Colorado Master GardenerSM, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, Denver County

Treat your senses to a plant that is "scent" sational.

Scented geraniums provide heavenly aromas when grown either outdoors in your garden or indoors on your windowsill.

Originally from Africa, scented geraniums migrated to Holland and then England in the 1600s. Over the past three centuries, cultivation has resulted in more than 100 varieties in an assortment of shapes, flower colors and perfumes.

The flowers feature the five petals of the Pelargonium genus, but instead of being evenly spaced, as are bedding-plant geraniums, they are arranged with two upper petals and three lower. The shrub-like plants grow from 18 inches to 3 feet tall. Although they are perennials in Zones 8 and higher, scented geraniums are grown as annuals in Colorado (Zones 4 and 5).

The leaves of these plants range in shape from rounded to lacy and finely cut. Growing in clusters, the small scented geranium flowers usually are white or shades of lilac and pink. A few varieties feature bright red flowers.

Scented geraniums generally are categorized by aroma. They come in rose, mint, fruit, spice and other pungent fragrances. A popular rose-scented plant is 'Rober's Lemon Rose.' Its soft, gray-green, two-inch leaves are deeply lobed. The scent is a strong, lemony-rose and the flower color is medium pink.

Mint varieties include 'Joy Lucille' with red-marked pink flowers and 'Godfrey's Pride,' a large rambling plant with a pungent mint scent, lobed green leaves and pink flowers. Some of the fruit and spice varieties include 'Ginger,' 'Frensham Lemon,' 'Lime,' 'Grapefruit,' 'Nutmeg' and 'Old Spice.'

Varieties in the pungent group are 'Wildwood' with brownish purple markings on the leaves and rose-colored blossoms; and 'Citrosa' and 'Citronella,' the "mosquito repellant" plants.

Growing scented geraniums in Colorado is easy. Grown out of doors, these plants do well in full sun. In hotter situations, it helps to shade them from the afternoon sun. Grow these geraniums in a well-drained soil of average fertility. Being light feeders, they like only an occasional dose of balanced fertilizer, especially following re-potting or planting outside.

Water when the soil becomes dry. Outdoor containers need to be checked frequently, but don't over water them.

Outdoor plants must be dug up and brought into the house for winter. Do so before the first frost - when night temperatures are getting down to 45 degrees. Indoors, plants require about four hours of sunlight a day. Feed them only if they begin to look light green and keep them fairly dry. Some gardeners cut back the plants by one-third before bringing them in the house, and some simply prefer to take cuttings.

You can root cuttings in a glass of water, but a more satisfactory method is to root them in a soil-less media. Take cuttings about six inches long, strip off the lower two or three sets of leaves and let them dry for 12 hours. Treat cuttings with rooting hormone and insert in a soil-less potting medium. Keep the medium damp. When you can gently tug on the new plants and feel resistance from their new roots, they are ready to move to their own pots.

In addition to enjoying their smell, you will find many uses for scented geraniums. Try flavoring a sponge cake by layering the bottom of the cake pan with leaves. Use the leaves to flavor iced tea or to scent sugar for teas and baking. The leaves and flowers also work well in potpourris, sachets and wreaths.

The plants can be ornamental in landscapes just as they are. They also can be shaped into topiaries or formed into Bonsai. They are charming when grouped in containers around a patio or along a wall or walkway.

Most scented geranium varieties require some cutting or pinching back. You can pinch back with scissors or your fingers on the green part of the stalk, removing stem tips above a leaf. Be sure, however, to leave several leaves on the stalk because that's where the plant will branch out.

Diseases and pests sometimes affect scented geraniums. Use a strong water spray to knock off common garden pests, such as white flies, mealy bugs and spider mites. If plants become too infested, try insecticidal soap or neem. Inspect plants periodically to catch and identify problems early for a quick remedy.

When selecting scented geranium plants, remember to rub the leaves lightly between your fingers to get the full impact of the aroma. Scented geraniums are used for aromatherapy, unusual taste treats and for their visual charm. With a little effort, you can grow these plants to delight your senses year-round.

Photograph courtesy of Judy Sedbrook.

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010