Monday, 22 September 2014

The national pelargonium collection 1/2

To Fibrex Nurseries today, the home of a the national pelargonium collection, which I’ve been intending to visit for some time. It could be argued that it’s a bit late in the year to visit a collection comprising largely summer flowering perennials but, like most people, I’m at the mercy of my diary and today was the first opportunity in a long while that I’ve had to make the trip. To tell the truth, it wasn’t a source of bother to me; I’m such an enthusiastic fan of this particular genus that the foliage and the growth habit of the individual specimens promised to hold as much fascination for me as the flowers – more, if I’m honest.

One of the last orders to go out this year. Fibrex will begin despatching pelargoniums again in March
Fibrex is a family run nursery, nestled in the beautiful Warwickshire countryside. As well as the pelargoniums they are home to the national hedera collection and additionaly specialise in ferns and begonias. Maintaining a strong presence at the horticultural shows run by the RHS and other organisations throughout the year, and a wall in the office entirely covered with awards provides ample testimony to their enviable success and skill. Earlier in the year I’d met Heather Godard-Key at a couple of the RHS shows in London, and we’ve since spoken on twitter. She kindly agreed to show me around the nursery and, within moments of greeting me as I extracted myself from the car, had furnished me with a welcome cup of tea and a slice of pelargonium cake. It might be three and half hours from home, but this alone was worth the journey.

Pellie cake, which was worth the journey in itself
Pelargoniums hail mainly from South Africa, with a few species having been discovered in East Africa, Australia and the Middle East. They were originally classified alongside geraniums, with which they share some features, but due to significant differences* have been considered a distinct genus since the late eighteenth century. Notwithstanding this fact, the general public and even certain seed companies (who really ought to know better) still refer to 'geraniums' when talking of pelargoniums. This is particularly so with the ever-popular zonal varieties, and is one of those things that will make a horticulturalist wince; in fact, a rather dangerous look comes over Heather’s face when our conversation turns to this confusion, and so I choose not to dwell on it.

Heather reminds me that here you only get to refer to 'geraniums' once...
Suffice it to say that there are many pelargonium cultivars, providing an attractive, colourful and easy to grow solution for the garden and conservatory. Often with scented foliage, the majority are tender and evergreen, requiring protection throughout the winter, and as such they make excellent container plants. Cultivars appropriate for many situations fall into useful categories – zonal, regal, angel, stellar, ivy-leaved, scented etc – and the collection is laid out according to these groups, all clearly labelled and with helpful notes to guide the enthusiast through the 2,500 plus plants on show.

With so much to see, I knew before arriving that I had no hope of taking everything in. On this visit, although quite prepared to be waylaid by interesting specimens along the way, I had decided to concentrate on the species section, whilst also indulging my curiosity with the scented leaved and stellar varieties. Here is just a small sample of the wonderful pelargoniums I met today.

Pelargonium triste
Pelargonium triste. Photograph © Heather Godard-Key
Pelargonium triste   Noted for its strong evening scent, this is the earliest species to be brought into cultivation in the seventeenth century. The tactile leaves are hairy and deeply divided, rather like those of a carrot or some other umbelliferous thing. The flowers are variable, dull yellow to purple, though I think this one is rather splendid.

Pelargonium abrotainifolium
Pelargonium abrotainifolium
Pelargonium abrotainifolium  I was completely won over by these small, highly textured, blue grey leaves and the reddish brown, loosely unkempt stems. Gorgeous dark cerise markings on the white upper petals.

Pelargonium exstipulatum
Pelargonium exstipulatum  Like Pelargonium abrotanifolium above, this shares small, glaucus, kidney-shaped (reniform) leaves with one of my favourites, Pelargonium sidoides, and also with Pelargonium reniforme.

Pelargonium gibbosum
Pelargonium gibbosum  Yellowy, almost green flowers, fabulous! Known as the ‘gouty’ pelargonium due to swollen nodes, which gives it its latin name.

Pelargonium tricuspidatum
Pelargonium tricuspidatum
Pelargonium tricuspidatum
Pelargonium tricuspidatum  There is so much variety in leaf form amongst these species plants, this one took me by surprise!

Pelargonium glutinosum
Pelargonium glutinosum  Talking of leaves, these are rather handsome ones, albeit sticky. A shrubby pelargonium growing to over a metre tall.

Pelargonium denticulatum
Pelargonium denticulatum  Another large, shrubby plant, with fabulous foliage (also somewhat tacky)! Precisely defined, deeply cut leaves – although another form, Filicifolium, takes it even further.

Before we leave the species, I wanted to share two final discoveries. First, the diminutive, glossy-leaved Pelargonium saxifragoides...

Pelargonium saxifragoides
Pelargonium saxifragoides
... and finally, the mother of all ivy-leaved forms, Pelargonium peltatum, named after the peltate (shield shaped) leaves in which the stalk attached towards the centre of the leaf, rather than at the outer margin. It may not be the most attractive trailing pelargonium, but its always interesting to see the parents of the more showy cultivars.

Pelargonium peltatum
Pelargonium peltatum

Part 2 of  this post can be read here

Fibrex Nurseries can be found on the web here, and on Twitter @FibrexNurseries 

*the differences are complex, but as an example, flowers of the genus Geranium will have five equally sized petals, arranged regularly around the centre, and ten fertile stamens, whereas a Pelargonium flower will typically have two larger upper petals, three smaller lower petals, with fewer than ten fertile stamens. Confusingly, the petals of the zonal cultivars, probably the most commonly seen pellie, have been bred to be even in shape, size, and arrangement. Which only goes to show what a minefield taxonomy can be.