Mistaken Identity; True Geraniums Deserve a Place in The Garden

Think you love ‘em or think you hate ‘em? Either way, geraniums are often misunderstood.   Long appreciated in the UK, true Geraniums (aka Hardy Geraniums) are not as well known in the US.  The biggest part of the problem is that, historically, we have had a case of mistaken identity. The flamboyantly colorful plants that we have called geraniums, the ones that fill our summer pots and hanging baskets, are not actually geraniums but Pelargoniums.


pelargoniums assorted

My design client thought she had a collection of geraniums. Like many people, she didn’t realize that the plants we have traditionally called geranium are actually Pelargoniums. (photo Joy Albright-Souza)


Pelargoniums are a frost-tender genus native to South Africa.  Pelargoniums include what we traditionally call; Ivy Geraniums, Martha Washington’s, Pansy-faced and Zonal geraniums, as well as their scented-leaved sisters. These plants have had their place in our gardens but are a far-cry from their cousins, the almost 500 species that are actually in the genus Geranium.


dune pelargonium close up

Close-up of the rare South African Dune Pelargonium, showing the “rabbit ear” (bilateral) flowers that are in contrast to the symmetrical (radial) blossoms of true Geraniums. (photo Joy Albright-Souza)


I have found that sometimes,  when I suggest a specific type of Geranium on a client’s planting plan, during the planning stage of a garden design, I get the feedback;” I don’t really like geraniums” . They are inevitably thinking of their Grandma’s clay pot of orangey-red mop heads, and are simply looking for something different, or more up-to-date, for their own garden.


Geranium Biokovo with spirea

The symmetrical blossoms of a True Geranium. The soft colored ‘Biokovo’ shines at the feet of the bright foliage of Lime Mound Spirea. (photo Joy Albright-Souza)


So in explanation and defense of the genus, allow me to explain;

True geraniums are often referred to as Hardy Geraniums, because most types are able to withstand temperatures of 15 degrees Fahrenheit, or below, making them a much more useful member of the garden.  Both Pelargoniums and True Geraniums are members of the Geraniaceae family, aka the Cranesbill Family, due to the shape of the seed pod that looks like the beak of a bird. Hardy Geraniums, in spite of their nickname, have a much more delicate and rambling presence in the garden.


geranium russell pritchard

Hardy Geranium ‘Russell Pritchard’ tumbles over a brick edged planter. (photo Joy Albright-Souza)


Real Geraniums aren’t the stars of the show, they don’t grab your attention like their hot-colored Pelargonium cousins, but they are very garden-worthy from a team-player standpoint.  Think of them like the corp de ballet behind the featured performers…they are dependable, look best in groups, and excel at transitioning from one scene to another while filling in at the feet of seasonal soloists.


geranium with coleonema and tulbaghia and polygala

Geranium ‘Russell Pritchard’ can be seen fluffing up the feet of bright Coleonema and Tulbaghia in this hillside planting design. (plant selection and photo by Joy Albright-Souza)


True Geraniums are mostly low-growing, mound-forming perennials. Their flowers are a symmetrical arrangement of five same-sized petals(radial), compared to Pelargoniums that have the top two petals sized or shaped differently compared to the bottom three (bi-lateral). They only come in cool tones, from whites to pinks (pale to fuchsia) and into the lavender-blues. Sometimes there are colored veins or a complimentary colored center, or eye.


geranium rozanne flowers

Lilac-blue Geranium ‘Rozanne’ tumbles through a picket fence filling in a garden edge.(photo Joy Albright-Souza)


The leaves are usually the size of a coin, from a dime to a dollar, depending on the species.  Often with scalloped edges or deeply lobed outlines, that can appear lacy or ferny. In some varieties the foliage can be a bright chartreuse or a deep chocolate-wine color and others tend toward the blueish-green. Some go dormant for a couple months, to survive the winter; others ride it out with a small mound of foliage. They generally respond well to freshening by moderate pruning and often the leaves turn reddish when the weather turns cold adding a nice seasonal touch.


geranium blue rozanne

The texture of this Hardy Geranium is just the thing for a client who said “We don’t want any flowers that you would find at a florist”.


Geraniums are generally low to moderate water users. Their appreciation for partial shade makes them very valuable in many garden conditions. They thrive at the edge of perennial beds and under the seasonal shade of larger plants. Many species appreciate good drainage so they do well in pots and hillsides and raised beds. They make great bedding plants and groundcovers and add a nice fine texture to many garden combinations.


geranium rozanne blue with paver path

Hardy Geraniums contribute tumbling, soft, long-season color to the garden. (design and photo by Joy Albright-Souza)


The types of geraniums available for our gardens come from all over the world, as the genus is found on almost every continent. The most available types come from Eastern Europe, the Himalayas or South Africa. Named hybrids are some of the most popular and garden-worthy of all the Geraniums.

Here are a few of my favorites;

Geranium x cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo’ is a neutral-colored groundcover type. It flowers most prolifically in early spring but has sporadic blossoms through most of summer. It’s  blossoms are a soft white, with pink stamens, then they turn a mottled pink as they age. The combination works well with many colors in the garden. This variety needs more shade than others, which makes them particularly happy in fog influenced coastal gardens where they can take full sun. Biokovo was named The Perennial of the Year for 2015.


Geranium Biokovo in garden

Geranium ‘Biokovo’,  is a lovely flowering groundcover that blends well with any color.


Geranium x riversleaianum ‘Russell Prichard’ (aka Pritchard) is a long-blooming fuschia-pink variety. It looks great gently softening a garden wall or paired with purples and pinks in a mixed bed. The English tend to love the similar but softer pink’ Mavis Simpson’.

Geranium ‘Rozanne’ is a reliable lilac-blue. It has a long-bloom period and thrives in sun or shade. Rozanne is known for taking heat better than many of the other varieties. The similar “Johnson’s Blue” is very nice as well, but the flowers don’t stand up as tall above the foliage and it doesn’t have as much of a white “eye” at the center.


Geranium Blue around fountain

Geranium ‘Rozanne’ brightens the path and ‘Russell Pritchard’  blooms at the base of the fountain in this low water garden design. (design and photo by Joy Albright-Souza)


— a couple more;

Geranium incanum is a rambling species that needs more space than other varieties. Some gardeners consider this species a bit of a ‘thug’ but it’s soft-ferny foliage and ability to be edge pruned make it a nice addition to the right spot in a garden. It is only hardy to about 20 degrees F. but is a very low water user.


Geranium maderense is an exception to the frost-hardy feature of most geraniums, but since it hails from the island of Madeira, where my husbands family comes from, I can’t help but add this giant-sized species to my favorites list. Best used as a short-lived (biennial) novelty plant when you have a large frost-free space.


Giant Cranesbill Geranium

The  husband-sized Giant Madera Geranium at the San Francisco Botanical Garden.


So whatever your gardening style, the genus Geranium can make a lovely contribution to many garden situations and is worthy of a closer look.


Tags: , , , ,

Categories: Landscape Design, Things to Grow


Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

One Comment on “Mistaken Identity; True Geraniums Deserve a Place in The Garden”

  1. March 29, 2016 at 7:32 pm #

    Husband sized. I like it.

    Brett Mosher 408.460.6600 Brett@Bluefinconsulting.com


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: