Jane Moore delights in the lesser know pelargonium varieties

Call me old fashioned but I love a nice display of geraniums. I don’t mean the proper hardy geraniums so beloved of cottage gardeners, although I do love them to distraction. No, I mean the big, bold pelargoniums that you see just about everywhere during the summer, bursting effusively from hanging baskets and council displays.

I know what you’re thinking – they’re so passé, so very parks department. I can sense delicate shudders of disapproval resonating throughout Bath, but hear me out. For, as with all plants, its how you use them that counts, and to my mind pelargoniums have their place. Just use a little imagination and they can be things of great majesty and beauty.

A Little History

The rise of the pelargonium is all down to the Victorians. They championed these reliable and cheerful plants for their sturdiness and sheer flower power, developing new varieties and creating new ways to use them. As the public park and the seaside became essentials of Victorian life so did the displays that went with them and so the modern pelargonium – and the council parks bedding display – was born.

Not Simply a Pelargonium

What we think of as bedding geraniums are actually zonal pelargoniums and these are brilliant for flowers all summer long. Some of the colours are a bit much, although I’m a great fan of a good shocking pink and the bright, blood reds look fantastic in terracotta pots or old olive oil tins, channelling a little of the Mediterranean holiday on the British patio. And who doesn’t love a trailing ivy leaf pelargonium in a window box or basket?

But it’s the scented leaf ones especially that attract me, along with some of the regal and decorative varieties too. These are finer, more elegant and to be savoured in more delicate ways. Rather than relying on them for a splash of colour like the zonals, these daintier plants should be allowed to go solo, or mix gently with others of their kind and the more delicate end of the bedding spectrum such as soft cosmos, cottagey nemesia and tiny flowers such as bacopa.

Defining Moment

My whole pelargonium argument can be encapsulated in just one name, one variety which tipped the balance for me in my student days so very long ago – Lord Bute. Even now Lord Bute fills me with wonder, flowering fabulously in the greenhouse as I write, its large, almost black flowers rimmed with the brightest shocking pink. Just one potful is enough to make you stop and stare.

“Everyone always comments on how lovely Lord Bute is,” says Julie Dolphin of The Nursery at Miserden, a fan of all things pelargonium. “But there are so many other good ones to choose from.”

Big and Beautiful

Julie grows a good selection of pelargoniums in her charming walled garden nursery in the Cotswolds triangle between Stroud, Cirencester and Cheltenham. But for sheer flower power she tends towards the regal pelargonium varieties with their larger flowers and lush foliage.

“The regals are so big and blousy and they look great in pots and containers. I love to see them lined up in terracotta pots indoors on a windowsill or in a conservatory or out on the patio,” she says.

These love warmth and shelter and need regular feeding as they can be a bit shy of flowering. Julie advises feeding every time you water with a high potash feed such as tomato feed to keep them happy.

My pick of the regal and decorative types, besides Lord Bute, is Mystery a lovely deep velvet red with darker centres which looks great in pots. One of Julie’s favourite is the exuberant Margaret Soley which has large lavender pink flowers highlighted with a deeper rosy red blotch on the upper petals. And we both agree that Pompeii, a new variety to me, has great potential with its dramatic frilly petals in deep purple edged with white.

“I like the rich colours and their bushy habit just lends itself to containers,” says Julie. I don’t tend to plant them with other things but I like to cluster them together in groups of similar colours. You can chop and change them around that way.”

Sweetly scented

My gardening is as much influenced by my nose as it is by my eyes and I will take any chance I can get to add scent to the garden so scented pelargoniums tick several boxes.

As a consequence I have what my deputy Anna would probably describe as a motley collection of scented pelargoniums in the greenhouse, all somewhat neglected and misshapen but all flowering their little socks off anyway. These are probably my favourite group of all pelargoniums and I am by no means alone. That doyen of gardening taste Sarah Raven offers numerous cultivars and collections while Julie’s enthusiasm knows no bounds.

“The scented varieties are simply stunning,” she says. “Although the flowers may be small and insignificant they are beautifully dainty and delicate compared to the big, blousy regals.”

Julie happily sings the praises of even the daintiest bloomers such as Royal Oak with its aromatic oak shaped leaves and pale mauve flowers and the delicately scented Deerwood Lavender Lass which has arching sprays of mauve flowers above compact mounds of foliage. I’m a fan of the beautifully named Attar of Roses which has a wonderful rose scent and lovely clusters of pale pink flowers According to Sarah Raven it also lasts brilliantly in a vase which is something I will definitely try. My last word is for Clorinda, a real beauty with scented leaves and surprisingly large – for a scented variety ­– glowing rose pink flowers and vigorous bushy growth. This lovely variety was bred in 1907 which just goes to show our gardening forebears knew a thing or two about long-lasting pelargonium appeal.

Suppliers: The Nursery at Miserden, Miserden, Stroud, Gloucestershire GL6 7JA. Tel: 01285 821638, email: info@miserdennursery.co.uk, web: miserdennursery.co.uk.

Fibrex Nursery, Honeybourne Road, Pebworth, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire CV37 8XP. Tel: 01789 720788, email: sales@fibrex.co.uk, web: fibrex.co.uk. Sarah Raven, tel: 0345 092 0283, email: info@sarahraven.com, web: sarahraven.com.

Jane Moore is the award-winning gardening columnist and head gardener at The Bath Priory Hotel. Follow her on Twitter: @janethegardener.