Matisse liked to pump up the color of his subjects, but when it came to geraniums, the flowers beat him to it. They were already as red as red could get without turning orange. The same color might have been too much for another plant, but the geranium possessed just the jaunty grace to pull off its madcap crown of flowers. No other plant is quite so delightfully animated. Study them, and the way the blooms erupt on arching stalks above a bed of undulating leaves starts to seem more Matisse than Matisse.
And that's only appearance. Consider the scent. From species to species of common or garden geranium, the curling foliage can alternately smell like earth, lemon, rose, clove, apple, nutmeg, chocolate and mint. For all these qualities — color, form and fragrance — one could forgive the geranium being a temperamental plant, requiring a shed full of evil-smelling garden products. Yet its crowning virtue is toughness. The answer implicit in the New Yorker cartoon in which a woman asks a nursery salesman, "Do you have something that thrives on neglect?" is "Why, yes, of course, Madam. The geranium."
Geraniums do so well and seem so right in California precisely because most of them evolved in a place with a very similar climate, South Africa. Most are descended from plants accustomed to rainfall only in the winter and are capable of storing water through long, hot, dry summers. It is testament to their hardiness that when English and Dutch explorers first sent them to Europe in the 1600s, the plants survived the trips. Grown first as ornamental plants in greenhouses, they were called (erroneously) "Indian geraniums," and later, "African geraniums."
Soon the ease of propagation from cuttings, the plant's instant cheer and its endurance made geraniums the universal garden-in-a-pot. Victorians adored them. According to an elegant history published by the University of Genoa, geraniums reached their peak of popularity in World War I England because they could be propagated outside greenhouses, which were needed for food crops.
In the U.S., geraniums now alternate with impatiens as the bestselling American bedding plant. The only place they seem to have lost currency is among elitists. Plant fanciers who refuse to grow anything that would thrive in a trailer park can be relied on to spurn geraniums. Then there are the geranium's considerable taxonomic problems, a scandal in plant circles. For the last 270 years, taxonomists, the botanists at university seats who name plants, have been giving the geranium a makeover.
Or trying. The geranium's fans are not cooperating.
By the 18th century, the Geranium genus was getting overcrowded. Temperate zone geraniums had been under cultivation in Europe for centuries. To qualify as a geranium, all a plant needed was beak-shaped fruit. The name came from the Greek, geranos, meaning crane, and referred to the shape of the fruit, which resembles a crane's bill. When African geraniums arrived in Europe in the 17th century, they had beaky fruit and joined the club. But by the 1730s, as some of the last plants to come in the geranium tent, African geraniums were among the first to be shown out. French botanist Charles-Louis L'Héritier de Brutelle invited the world to call them Pelargoniums instead, after pelargos, Greek for stork, for their now supposedly stork's bill-shaped fruits.
Crane, stork, Greek, beaky fruit. The plant-buying public stuck with geranium. More than 200 years later, only horticulturists say pelargonium. Even those of us who applaud the switch from common names to botanical Latin can't quite get our mouths around pelargonium.
Yet, at a guess, the reluctance to switch also amounts to a kind of love. The name change leaves a sense of loss, the feeling that pelargoniums are somehow less than geraniums. As anyone who has ever enjoyed them can testify, there is nothing less-than about African geraniums.
Rather, they are a product of nature at its best. The count of species is now more than 250 and its variety confounds even its staunchest admirers. Aside from beaky-shaped
strongest thing they have in common is their differences. In his quaintly titled 1970 book, "Pelargoniums Including the Popular 'Geranium,' " British author Derek Clifford remarked, "no other group of plants is so tenaciously addicted to being different."
For those of us who have wondered at the differences, take heart. It gets much more confusing out in the wild. Here is Clifford's roll call of potential qualities: "herbaceous, shrubby, deciduous, annual, biennial, perennial, stemless, long stemmed, tuberous rooted, fibrous rooted, with stipules, without stipules, with persistent stipules, with two petals, with four petals, with five petals, with six petals, with equal petals, with unequal petals "
For a taxonomist, this is like confronting a group of mammals that includes camels and cats in the same genus. All they need are two eyes to qualify. All that plants need to be pelargoniums are storky seed pods. Yet, at the same time, Clifford clearly thrills at the variety. It evolved, he argues, as a survival skill. Some plants, he observes, cast off lots of seed to ensure a future. "The Pelargonium has gone very differently to work," he writes. "It has survived through its capacity to produce variation rather than multitude."
Everything we admire in the plant he traces to a survival skill. Take the classic geranium with the ruffled, slightly fuzzy leaves held aloft like little landing pads with the spikes of lipstick red flowers. This is a "zonal geranium" or Pelargonium zonale, or, in South Africa, the "horseshoe geranium." (The term "zonal," from zona, Latin for "belt," refers to the slightly brownish horseshoe-shaped ring in the leaves.) The zonal, thinks Clifford, was one of the first pelargoniums sent to Europe, by a Dutch governor of the Cape colony, and many common garden hybrids spring from it.
Plant it in the ground, and the zonal is capable of send
ing out deep tap roots but can survive with short ones, even uprooted, for months. The stems and branches are succulent-like, swelling with water after rains, then holding it over long periods, eventually drying out and dying in strategic legs so as not to sap the entire plant. The fuzzy leaves reflect fierce sun. Their shape and patterns, he ventures, are highly evolved protective devices: Leaves that look like butterflies, or fallen tree leaves, or marked as if tainted by dung, all survived millenniums of predation to become ornamental qualities to us, but camouflage for them.
Meanwhile, the foliage, which produces that classic geranium smell, like a cross between lemon and damp earth, evolved to repel browsing ruminants.
Carry on through the species and one finds dozens of such adaptations, plants with such strong aromatics that they are used for essential oils, including citronella. Some of the smells may also serve to attract pollinators.
The single most important thing a plant must do in the wild to survive is attract pollinators to set fertile seed. For this, it seems likely the geranium's, excuse me, the pelargonium's method was color. The Matisse red, blameless white flowers, cream ones, coral, salmon, scarlet, crimson, purple, black, green and gray all evolved as come-ons to moths, butterflies, bats and hummingbirds. Ironically, the propagator it attracted most effectively was us. Our nurserymen then proceeded to breed sterile plants, so few of us ever see the famous beaky fruit, never mind the seeds.
Instead, geraniums are usually grown from clippings or nursery plants. This has got the plant further than nature's design ever intended. They now light up millions of window ledges because of the effect of their color on us. We fell in love with that high, Fauvist red, the purplest purples, the pinkest pinks. We then stayed in love because those deliriously vibrant plants are so hard to kill.
Joan DeFato, plant science librarian at the Los Angeles County Arboretum, assisted with this report. * (Begin Text of Infobox) Something for everyone * The time-honored way of starting geraniums is to admire a plant, then beg, borrow or steal a cutting. That said, there is no shame in buying one. Any garden center worthy of the name should have at least 20 types of pelargoniums. For old-fashioned varieties and a selection in the hundreds, visit the website of Killdeer Farms, http://www.killdeer farms.com, or call (360) 887-1790. To prevent option paralysis, approach the plants one group at a time, as follows: * Scented: Name a scent and there is probably a geranium with an essential oil that mimics it. Fragrances include apple, lemon, nutmeg, chocolate, mint, balsam and rose. Citronella is famous for mosquito repellent. Can be used in lieu of box hedge for a pruned border. Because stems are more like shrub or tree wood, and less like succulents, they take longer to root. They tend to revert to wild-type traits, says Killdeer nurseryman Steve Barton. Common, zonal or "horseshoe" pelargonium: The Matisse geranium, with voluptuous, banded leaves in the shape of torn circles. Ecstatic blooms come in every color but really should be lipstick red. Annuals in most of the country, shrubs in California, where succulent stems need clearing out every season. Some summer shade in ferocious heat. Can take seasonal water or stand irrigated spots. Breeders produce new hybrids every year. Check plant sticks carefully. Some breeds will remain compact window box plants, others can become bushes. Regal (or Martha Washington) geraniums: These produce fancy foliage, what Barton describes as a "cucumber-type leaf." Every color, azalea-type blooms, whose blotchy throats, or nectar pads, evolved to attract insects. Hummingbirds appreciate them. Crossed with ivy geraniums for the fancier new balcony plants. Improved soil will produce yet more blooms. Ivy geraniums (Pelargonium peltatum): They break down into dozens of cultivars that can have the shape of ivy. Can trail from 18 inches to 5 feet, create showers of blooms. Balcony plants, ground cover. Primary and pastel colors, it's got them. Stripes, ditto. Single blooms, double blooms. Just don't overload the balcony. — Emily Green