The Geranium Society of Los Angeles was founded in 1953 by a group of people who were devoted to growing plants of the geranium family. The family is a large one, there are plants in it to suit almost all gardeners.
Actually, the plants that gardeners have grown under the geranium name for several hundred years is not a geranium, but a pelargonium. Both plants, as well as a few others, are all members of the geraniaceae family. The problem arose when the plants were first brought from their native home of South Africa into Europe. All the early imports were labeled “geraniums” and continued under that blanket name for many years. When some observant botanists finally started a closer examination of these lovely new plants, they discovered many differences and then decided that the imports were not all the same plant type, but there were differences so were then moved into different named classifications.
One group of plants was given the original name of geraniums. A second group was classified as pelargoniums, then there were erodiums and sarcocaulons/monsonias.
The plant we label “geranium” was put into the pelargonium category, however, it had become a well-loved plant of gardeners in Europe under the old “geranium” label so although the botanists told them that the lovely pot or bedding plant they grew in such numbers was a pelargonium, they persisted in using the old name. That error has continued down the years and still persists today. It was not unusual that the word about the name changes was not spread and adopted by those early days growers of the 1700s and 1800s, there was no public media to pass this information rapidly to all the garden world as there is today.The wrong name became so entrenched that it is, even today, in general use. Our Society name is a case in point, It should be, for correctness sake, Pelargonium and Geranium Society. Pelargonium was not being used by the public in 1953, so the “geranium” name was adopted for the new clubs name. That is what the nurseries that sold them were labeling them.
A true geranium is a hardy perennial. It dies down in the fall to re-appear the next spring the same as a daylily or violet. A pelargonium, at least the great majority of them, will not survive temperatures much below freezing. True, or hardy geraniums are, for a majority, lower growing, spreading plants. they are prized for bedding and ground covers. There are some taller growing ones that do well in the back of the border. They tolerate much more shade than pelargoniums which require more sun exposure. The flowers are rounded and blue is the predominate color. There are whites and pinks of varying shades also, but to date, there are no bright red true geraniums. There are differences between the two plants in their anatomy, seed pods, etc, which are not clearly seen, but make up the reason for the family separation.
Pelargoniums which includes the popular “geraniums” is available in many forms. L.H. Bailey, in 1929-1930 decided to further name the sub groups of the pelargonium family. the ones we know as “geraniums” he labeled P.X hortorum, the ones with leaves that resemble an ivy leaf named peltatum family and what is known as a regal was labeled P.X domesticum. I can only assume that there was such a mixed bag in other plants such as the scented leaf and uniques that he did not give them a specific name. The public themselves put a lot of their own names on the popular “geranium”. They were, and still are, commonly known as “zonals” for the darker zone in the leaf. For a while they are also known as “fish” which some perceived as the scent of the leaf.
Some modern purists get quite agitated if they hear a gardener refer to their pot or bedding plant as a “geranium” when they are speaking of their pelargonium. I do not consider it a major upheavel even though it is incorrect. After all, we say maple tree instead of acer and daylily instead of the correct hemerocallis. I think it important for a grower of the plants to know the difference, and always point out the name problem, but then let the matter alone.
In future articles on this web site, the whole family of geraniaceae will be discussed in greater detail and the different plants will have photos to illustrate the differences. There is far too much material to cover them adequately in one article. Keep checking this site for more on this fascinating family of plants..