Many of the plants in my collection have sentimental value, often coming from someone who is important to me and sometimes those people are no longer with us. Such is the case with one of my geraniums which I fondly call “Elsie.” Elsie was my late mother-in-law’s name and she gave me a slip of this geranium (and several others). That was close to 50 years ago! Over the years the other geraniums have been lost but I have tenaciously hung on to this particular plant because it is so unique and quite beautiful.
Like many gardeners in the past who lived on farms, gardening was a challenge. I can remember my mother-in-law’s kitchen windowsills being full of potted geraniums in the winter. Because of the drafty nature of the old sash windows she used to place heavy paper between the plant pots and the window to help protect them from cold air. The plants were put in leaf mould — no running to the store to buy a bag of potting soil in those days. Because gardening came with so many challenges, I think houseplants were cherished more then than they are now in our world of convenience and plenty.
I particularly liked this geranium because of its blooms. The flowers are small, unlike the huge round balls of bloom now produced by modern-day geraniums. Elsie’s blooms are small, compact and held high above the foliage on stiff stems and the plant does well outdoors. The small blooms mean that they are not as susceptible to damage from rain as those of the large blooms of hybrids.
The colour of Elsie’s blooms is another great attribute — a soft shell pink, like the inside of a seashell — and I have yet to discover the exact same colour in any other geranium.
Another feature of Elsie is its foliage. Most geraniums have dark-red or burgundy markings on their leaves, with the rest of the leaves being bright green and somewhat shiny. The foliage of Elsie is dull green and a bit paler than that of modern geraniums. The leaves are also smaller and appear more dainty than the large leaves of newer ones. It is a bushy plant that doesn’t grow as tall as most other geraniums; it is well branched and nicely shaped. It blooms prolifically all summer outdoors and continues to put on a lovely display during the winter.
When I bring a geranium indoors in the fall I either cut it back severely or if the plant is quite old I will start a new one from cuttings, as they are easy to start from slips. A terminal piece of stem will root readily in damp soilless mix. Some gardeners root their cuttings in water with great success but I seem to have better luck rooting them in dampened soilless mix. I use a bit of rooting hormone on the ends of the slips to encourage roots to develop. Because I am loath to ever lose my Elsie plant, I often take slips that already have a bit of root attached to ensure that they will grow.
Like all geraniums, Elsie likes lots of sunshine so I position the plant on a stand on the south-facing back patio in the summertime. In the winter, Elsie occupies a spot in front of a south-facing sunroom window. Geraniums prefer their soil to dry out slightly between waterings and in the summertime I add 20-20-20 soluble fertilizer to the water every couple of weeks. I hold back on the fertilizer when I bring the plant indoors and only resume again when it develops bloom, which is usually February. By then the rays of the sun are getting stronger as the days lengthen. Geraniums are carefree plants in terms of disease and insect pests; perhaps their aromatic foliage deters insects. Elsie does develop occasional yellow leaves that I immediately remove.
Old heritage plants continue to occupy a place of importance in my garden. They provide beauty as well as evoke memories of loved ones who have passed on. Often, like my geranium, they are not available commercially so they might just be lost completely unless we hang on to them. I also share such plants with friends and fellow gardeners — a good way to ensure that the plants live on for several more generations.