Geraniums & Pelargoniums



Which is which?  The botany can be a bit mind-numbing, but basically geraniums are generally from northern climates, often requiring a winter chill (vernalization) and acid soil to thrive.  Pelargoniums are generally from Mediterranean climates like South Africa and are usually drought tolerant, but damaged by frost. Both genera are part of the geranium family (Geraniaceae).                            


The Pelargonium genus varies greatly and we grow fewer than 500 of the many thousands of varieties in existence.  Those that we do grow share a number of care requirements for success in the garden.

Living Soil for Long Life - Most pelargoniums are sold as annuals (disposable plants) and the peat/perlite mixes they are grown in ensure a short life in the ground.  Our own heavier compost based mix is more compatible with garden soils, providing a slower growing, but healthier and longer lived plant.

Warm Days, Cool Nights - These plants need the Pacific OPcean influenced climate. Malibu, Pasadena, Concord and San Jose are fine.  Phoenix, Chicago and New Orleans are not.

Avoid Soggy Soil, Wet Foliage – When in doubt, water established pelargoniums in the garden less, not more. Once per week should be plenty (as with irises).  Overhead irrigation is good, but avoid watering late in the day or at night.

Cut Back 75% Every Year  - The ancestors of our plants inhabited areas of South Africa similar to our chaparral, filling the role of salvias, etc.  If controlled burns intimidate you, cut back the foliage by 75% every year, sometime between Thanksgiving and Super Bowl.  Depending on the situation, we use pruning shears, hedge trimmers, a weedeater or even a machete.  Without the pruning, new growth will initiate from the end of the previous years, leading eventually to woody sprawl and declining vigor.

Small Plants Adapt Best – After years of experimentation, we have decided to grow most of our pelargoniums in deep (nearly twice as deep as most 4-inch) 4-inch pots in compost based soil that we produce. The difference between our 4-inch grown and a one-gallon is a few weeks of growth, but the 4-inch grown plants live longer and have fewer problems in the landscape.

  Species/Species Hybrids
This catchall category is from Geraniums: The Complete Encyclopedia by Fay Brawner, an excellent resource. All should be included in the super drought tolerant plant palette.

Ivies (Pelargonium x Peltatum)
Ivy pelargoniums are available from an abundance of sources, so we just grow a few. All prefer to grow within ten miles of the ocean and thrive in immediate seacoast conditions.


Zonals (Pelargonium x hortorum)
These are the classic red or orange plants most people envision when they hear 'geranium'. Rounded felty leaves usually have a darker 'zone' pattern, hence the name.  Zonals are very heat tolerant, but can suffer from rust closer to the coast.  Since we don't spray for rust, we grow only the most rust-resistant.


Add fragrance to your plant palette with this diverse group of pelargoniums. For best fragrance effect, locate plants where the reflected heat off of masonry or the casual touch of a passerby releases the aroma. To smell a scented pelargonium, do not lead with your nose or pinch or smash foliage.  Gently touch a leaf between a thumb and finger. Your touch will pick up some of the aromatic oils, and the heat of your finger releases the fragrance. Smell the finger.  Repeat.  Most of us can smell eight scented pelargoniums before washing our potpourri hands and starting over.


Pelargonium - Species, Ivy, Zonal & Scented Varieties


Regals/Martha Washingtons (Pelargonium x domesticum)
These prom queens of the pelargonium world put on the biggest show for the shortest time (2-3 months) of all our pelargoniums.  Blooms stop when temperatures top 80°F.  Think of them as drought tolerant substitutes for azaleas, and wonderful Mother’s Day gifts. Also available in 5-gallon containers.


These amazing hybrids combine the stature and stunning blooms of regals with the less flashy presentation and incredible heat/drought tolerance of other species.  Uniques are an essential addition to the shrubby perennial plant palette of the drought tolerant garden.  Also available in 5-gallon containers.


Angel pelargoniums are fascinating crosses of regal pelargoniums and (usually) scented pelargoniums; some have been called mini regals or pansy face pelargoniums. Their popularity is soaring due to their long bloom period, massive flower displays and trouble free, usually fragrant foliage.


Pelargonium - Regal, Unique & Angel Varieties


Geranium maderense
While there are other fine geraniums that will grow in Southern California (Geranium ‘Rozanne’, ‘Biokovo’ and sanguineum), we only grow this one.  Usually a biennial, Geranium maderense thrives in a tough combination of dry shade and crowded tree roots better than almost any other option. While vegetative, Geranium maderense resembles a large (18”-28” W x 24”-36” H) mounding begonia with dissected foliage. During the 3-7 month flower display, it looks more like a sturdy, broad delphinium with hundreds of lavender-magenta blooms. Self seeds readily.


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