Thursday, 31 July 2014

Plant fever

Pelargonium 'Mystery'
Could it be the case that, just as a person’s sense of taste changes over the years – the bitterness of coffee and alcohol becoming more appealing – so one’s sense of smell also undergoes a similar transformation with advancing age? I can only speak for myself, but this seems a reasonable hypothesis. As a child I had a particular dislike for the sent of certain leaves – my youthful nose finding tomatoes and zonal pelargoniums (which we called ‘geraniums’) most offensive. Now, I positively look forward to pinching out the side shoots on my tomato plants, releasing tiny clouds of refreshingly astringent perfume as I nip with finger and thumb – and can’t pass a pelargonium without impulsively reaching to squeeze a leaf to similar effect. But I don't grow tomatoes to sniff them – like any sensible person I grow them because a home grown tomato tastes so much better than a shop bought tomato, whilst bestowing upon the grower the gratification of knowing that you’re eating the fruit of a plant you've raised yourself from seed – knowledge which brings satisfaction and smugness in equal measure. As justifications for growing a particular genus go, that’s pretty uncomplicated. My reasons for growing pelargoniums, on the other hand...well, I'm altogether more suspicious of those.

You can’t eat a pelargonium. Well, that’s not quite true – I’ve recently been taunted with photographs of pelargonium cake, something I’ve yet to sample. But you don't grow them as a fruit, or a vegetable – you grow them for their cheery flowers. Perhaps, too, because the pelargoniums I grew up with made you feel like a green fingered gardening god – almost impossible to kill by neglect, they can cope with dry conditions, being supremely forgiving should you neglect to water them for weeks on end. You accidentally knocked a bit off from over zealous deadheading? No problem! Simply stick the end into some compost and, a few weeks later – hey presto! – a new plant! For as long as I can remember, the unpretentious cheer of zonal pelargoniums has been a fixture of the summer garden – rounded heads of single scarlet flowers, on long, succulent stems, rising from a mound of fleshy, rounded leaves with the characteristic burgundy half-moon markings – all seemingly quite innocent. But then a fancier relative of my familiar, unglamorous companions caught my eye, and that, I’m afraid, was that. A Something seemed to start.

I bought my first fancy pelargonium from Marchants Hardy Pants in East Sussex. It looked nothing like the plants I was used to – long, trailing stems, mid green, parsley like foliage, slightly curled on itself, with soft pink single flowers, each with five petals – two large at the top, three smaller below, the base of each petal with a splash of a deeper pink. I loved this plant, and it kept me company next to my potting bench. Sadly, inexplicably, I failed to give it adequate protection one year and it succumbed to the worst of a cold winter in an unprotected greenhouse, though for now it lives on in the header image on my Twitter page. I will replace it as soon as I find another.

Pelargonium 'Shannon'
While at Marchants I also fell in love with a spectacular, delicate plant, Pelargonium sidoides, a species pelargonium. It has smallish, glaucous blue-grey leaves, which are the most perfect foil for the deep maroon flowers held above on long stems, each flower with the same petal arrangement as Shannon, but more delicate in form. Frustratingly, these weren’t for sale at the time, though a few months later I managed to find one in a collection with a silly name at

Pelargonium sidoides
It came with two regal pelargoniums, 'Lord Bute', which has flowers of deep burgundy, almost black, fringed with a lighter pink, and 'Mystery', a bright, rich red with darker centres. The Regal group of pelargoniums was again new to me – the flowers are much larger and more flamboyant than those of any pelargonium I’d encountered before, though the form of the plant was not so different from the plants whose scent I’d found so unappealing as a boy. The leaves, however, were noticeably different, and here I hope you’ll pardon me for introducing the topic of food again. To my mind, the most sensible way to describe in words the difference between the leaves of a zonal and a regal pelargonium is to use a crisp-based metaphor. If the leaves of the zonal pelargonium are gently rounded, in the style of a normal Walkers potato crisp, then the ridges and scalloped edges of the foliage on a regal pelargonium are more of the McCoy's ridge-cut type. Far more tactile, and quite a novelty to me.

I found the loss of the Shannon rather disheartening and perhaps partly due to this, and also to the inevitably butterfly nature of my mind when it comes to the garden, the newer pelargoniums, whilst not being entirely neglected, were not lavished with quite the attention they deserved. I’ve learnt, for example, that you need to stop these plants (pinch out the growing tips to encourage side branching) if you want bushy specimens – both the regals and the species got a little rangy, although they seemed perfectly happy.

And then, in around May this year, I came across a particularly splendid, dark flowered regal, petals a uniform shade of deep, red-black wine. The owner couldn’t remember the name, but I chanced across Pelargonium 'Chocolate' while collecting an order of roses from Rumwood Nurseries in Maidstone, which seemed to be the same cultivar, or at least one very similar. I bought two mature, bushy plants in two litre pots, one for the front of the house, one for the back (the one in the front, which gets more sun, and probably a bit less watering, is flowering most exuberantly, though both are healthy).

Pelargonium 'Chocolate'
The acquisition of these new plants more or less coincided with Chelsea – time to gaze in wonder at, amongst other things, rank upon rank of pelargoniums in mind-blowing forms and habits and colours. But I didn't add to my collection. Aware of my somewhat flaky record of looking after things-wot-must-live-in-containers, I was wary of introducing yet another potentially dead thing to the garden. Rather to my surprise, my resolve even lasted at Hampton Court, despite having the car with me and being therefore unable to use the excuse of plants getting squashed on the tube and train on the way home. But a week later I gave in, placing my first order on the website of Fibrex Nurseries, who hold the National Pelargonium Collection.

Pellies in paper
So barely a week later I found myself eagerly unwrapping a cardboard box which held my precious cargo; seven new pelargoniums, each carefully wrapped and nestled in shredded newspaper. (When you find yourself babbling with enthusiasm about the packaging, before even setting eyes on the contents, I think it’s safe to say that you’re in trouble. This could become a habit.) My latest arrivals are as follows: 'Turkish Coffee' (regal), 'Cy's Sunbust' (scented leaf), 'Lady Plymouth' (scented leaf), 'Creamery' and 'Gladys Weller' (both double zonals), 'Harvard' (ivy-leaved) and 'Snowbright' (stellar).  Within minutes of unpacking they were all potted up and in their new homes – four inside on the kitchen window ledge, three outside in the courtyard. I will post on these individually as they bulk up and come into flower; just now, I’m pulling off any flowers that dare to appear as I’d prefer the plants concentrate their metabolic efforts on growing roots, shoots and leaves. Tough love.

I’m left with the question – what is it that makes some of us slightly obsessive about one genus of plants or another? Is it an evocative smell, a childhood memory, or something more nebulous? Do leave a comment below if you have any answers, I’d love to hear them. As for me and pelargoniums,
I think it’s clearly too late to extricate myself from their clutches. Save yourselves if you can. Or better yet, just surrender to it, find a plant you can get ridiculously enthusiastic about, and let it take over. There are far worse habits to have.