GARDEN FRESH : Please Eat the Geraniums

The family of scented geraniums is multifarious.

Some are poetic. In the language of flowers, if you sent a friend a rose geranium, you'd be saying that person was your chosen. If you sent a nutmeg geranium, it would mean you expected to meet. If you sent a lemony geranium, it would tell the recipient to expect the unexpected.

All are elegant. Their leaves can fill the palm of your hand or balance on the tip of a little finger--be ferny or oak-like, flat or furled, smooth or furry. Although the flowers of most are small, they resemble in miniature all the vivid geraniums that grace window sills around the world.

Beyond their lyrical meaning and beauty, the subtlety and range of fragrance in scented geraniums is astonishing--around 250 have been recorded since they arrived in England from the African Cape about 1632. Dozens of scents are still available. For example, the Sandy Mush Herb Nursery offers 17 that are rose-scented, 12 scented with lemon, 18 scented of fruits and spices, 12 of assorted mints and 13 whose scents are described as "pungent." Other specialists offer a wealth of 60 species and more.

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Which to grow? I began our collection with the rich scents of lemony Mabel Grey, intense Attar of Roses, biting Peppermint, spicy Nutmeg (with cream-dashed variegated leaves) and tart/sweet Apple. Next you might treat yourself to Rober's Lemon Rose, Prince of Orange, strawberry scented Countess of Scarborough, Clorinda (which can be eucalyptus, lemon or nutmeg depending on your mood and the time of day), coconut, lemon balm, ginger . . .

In the kitchen, these leaves must be used with care because their flavor ranges from subtle to subtlest. The highest and best use is probably layering them with granulated or confectioner's sugar in a tightly closed jar--in only a few days, you'll have scented sugar for your fruit or cereal, to sprinkle over cakes and tarts and stir into tea. Some, like peppermint and lemon, make gorgeous tisanes-- steep a small handful of torn leaves in boiling water in a covered cup or a pot for five minutes, then sip. Scented geranium leaves are wonderful in old-fashioned puddings too.

Scented geraniums are the source of many pleasures. Lay branches in a linen closet or through bureau drawers. If anyone reading this still writes letters on stationery, you can bury leaves in your writing paper box. And when you pull out grandmother's finger bowls for holiday parties, do as grandmother did and float scented geranium leaves and blossoms in the water.

Scented geraniums can be grown as long-lived perennials in ground where there's no frost the year around--some will get three or more feet high. Where there's frost, most species are ultra-tender and must be whisked indoors for winter--in containers, of course.

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Indoors, geraniums are happiest in a sunny but cool spot, and they must have good circulation of air--no stuffy corner. Water sparingly through winter. In spring, when all danger of frost has passed, back into the garden they go.

Sometimes I plant them in the ground for the summer; it depends on their size and shape and where I want them. Since a plant in a pot has the bonus of several inches of added height, often I set pots in bare spaces, which they fill marvelously. Be sure to put a saucer under the pot so the roots won't dive into the ground.

Whether in a pot or the ground, scented geraniums need full sun, well-drained soil or soil mix allowed to dry out between waterings and feedings of half fish/half kelp solution at half-strength every month or so through the growing season.

Scented geraniums reproduce most successfully from cuttings. If you have friends who grow scented geraniums, take them a jar of homemade jelly or a nosegay in exchange for a cutting or two.

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Cuttings are best taken when branches are pliant enough to bend without snapping. From the tip of a vigorous mature plant, pick the top two or three inches of a stocky branch that has two or three nodes (bumpy places that sprout new stalks). Nip off flowers and all but the top two or three leaves, wrap the cutting so it won't dry out, but don't put it in water--keep it in a cool place until planting.

For each cutting, fill a 2 1/2- to 3-inch container with commercial potting soil mixed with 1/2 teaspoon perlite or builder's (not beach) sand. Water thoroughly, then plunge the cutting into the middle an inch deep. Set in a saucer in bright light but no sunshine. Keep evenly moist but not wet, and never let water stand in the saucer. Spring through fall, the cutting will root in about two weeks-- longer in winter and with some species. Move to the next size up when the roots fill the pot--do this all through the plant's life.

These dear garden mimics are as tempting as they are charming. That's why, should you see me on a walk in geranium country, please don't ask to see what's in my pockets.

Sources:

Local nurseries can order a number of scented geraniums.

For rarer plants, some specialists are Merry Gardens, Box 595, Camden, Me. 04843-0595; The Sandy Mush Herb Nursery, 316 Surrett Cove Road, Leicester, N.C. 18748-9622; Shady Hill Gardens, 821 Walnut St, Batavia, Ill. 60510.

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Blancmange is an antique French chilled dessert, traditionally sweetened almond-flavored light cream given substance with gelatin. Americans adopted it and named it cold shape. I've replaced the flavor of ground almonds with scented geraniums, rose in particular. Silken, pure and simple, just once taste it as the French did, using devil-may-care pure half-and-half.

You can serve the pudding from a bowl or unmold it. You can also turn the mixture into an old-fashioned moss: Chill to the consistency of unbeaten egg white, beat until foamy, then fold in two stiffly beaten egg whites. Turn the pudding into a lightly oiled five-cup bowl and chill until set, then unmold.

Top this white-as-snow pudding with scented geranium leaves and flowers and rim the base of each serving with slices of soft fruit or a crimson ribbon of pureed berries.

SCENTED GERANIUM SHAPE

2 cups half and half

2 cups milk

1/3 cup small whole or small torn pieces of fragrant scented geranium leaves, fairly firmly packed

4 3/4 teaspoons unflavored gelatin

3 tablespoons sugar, or to taste

6 large leaves or 6 sprigs small leaves of same scented geranium, with flowers of plant as garnish

1 cup lightly sweetened puree fresh or frozen berries, or thin slices soft fruit

Combine half and half, milk and scented geranium leaves in heavy 2-quart saucepan. Slowly bring to simmer uncovered over medium-low heat. Do not boil. Turn heat to lowest setting to maintain barest simmer, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat, cover and cool, at least 2 hours.

Dampen and thoroughly wring out sturdy kitchen towel. Drape in quart measuring pitcher and pour infusion into it. Gather corners of cloth, and when dripped through, squeeze out every drop to make 3 1/2 cups.

Pour 1/2 cup mixture into microwave-proof bowl. Sprinkle gelatin over top. Whisk to blend. Let stand until thickened, about 3 minutes. Whisk until smooth, then cover tightly and cook at full power in microwave until gelatin has dissolved, about 30 seconds. Whisk in sugar, and when dissolved, whisk mixture into milk. Taste to adjust for sweetening.

Strain mixture through fine sieve into quart bowl or lightly oiled mold. Cover and chill until set, about 2 hours to serve from bowl, or 6 to 8 hours to unmold. Garnish with leaves and flowers. Surround each serving with fruit. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

176 calories; 75 mg sodium; 36 mg cholesterol; 11 grams fat; 14 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 0.03 gram fiber.

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