What’s in a name? Well, plenty evidently if you are discussing plants, because common names that we have given to plants over the years may not be accurate at all and can be quite misleading. When someone says to me, “Are you growing geraniums this year?” I suspect that they are referring to those wonderful plants that we use both as houseplants and as outdoor bedding plants. In fact, if I took the person literally, I would have to surmise that we are discussing the true geranium, to which we have given the common name, cranesbill.
The houseplants we grow and the bedding plants available in the spring with the enormous flower clusters are actually pelargoniums, and although they are distant relatives of the cranesbill, they are not members of the plant genus geranium. I am going to be discussing the true geranium, but I will also use its common name, cranesbill. The reason for its common name is that the seed pod of a cranesbill resembles the head and bill of a crane. In our household, I find these seed pods attractive and choose to leave them on the plants; my wife disagrees, and finds that the dead-looking seed pods detract from the beauty of the plants’ foliage and is eager to deadhead after flowering ceases. Sometimes I win!
Cranesbills are best described as dense, rounded plants that grow about 25 cm tall and they produce thick clumps. The foliage of cranesbills is attractive all year – it is dark green and the leaves are rounded and often toothed or serrated. Some gardeners shear the plants after bloom has faded to encourage new foliage growth and a repeat of bloom, but I choose simply to enjoy the attractive foliage for the rest of the season. I do like the foliage of these plants – particularly in spots where the foliage can tumble over the edge of a curb or planter edge. I have several planted along our driveway and they go a long way to soften the cement curb that borders the brick driveway.
The blooms come in a number of colours – all cool colours, such as white, pink, magenta, blue and purple. If the variety is single, the blooms will be about three cm wide and cup shaped. There are attractive varieties whose blossoms are fully double and they perform just as well as the single types. Cranesbills are perfectly hardy on the Prairies and never need winter protection. I do leave the foliage on mine during the winter to provide some shelter and to help catch the snow to ensure a good snow cover. Cranesbills are light-looking plants when they are in bloom – the blossoms are dainty and held about the foliage on thin stems and the flowers seem to float on top of the leaves.
Although cranesbills like adequate moisture and rich soil, they can go through long periods of drought without wilting. They attract butterflies and bees to the garden when they are in bloom. Although the literature says that cranesbills might suffer from rust and mildew, I have found my plants to be problem free and not requiring a lot of care. I do have mine planted in full sun in an area that has good air circulation. If I tried to grow them in a lot of shade or in a very sheltered spot, I might experience those difficulties.
Cranesbills are easily propagated by division and when a clump is about four years old, it sometimes dies out in the centre or the clump becomes so large that the foliage splits and falls to either side, exposing a bare centre. When this happens, it is time to dig up and take new divisions. “Johnson’s Blue” is the old standard variety, with single blue flowers. There are new varieties being developed all the time, some of them being “biokova” which is white with a tinge of pink, and “bloody,” which has bright-pink blossoms. Perhaps if you choose to include a true geranium in your landscape, you will choose one of the newer varieties.
– Albert Parsons writes from Minnedosa, Manitoba