Today, the geranium is still disdained by horticulturel mavens, and yet some 150 million plants are sold each year to folks who rely on that splash of scarlet (or pink, white or salmon) to decorate their summer yards, patios and hanging baskets. Can so many people be so wrong?
No. My highfalutin gardening buddies might believe that I’ve been smelling the citronella, but I think geraniums are okay. They just need to be used with restraint — don’t line the front walk with them — and given a little more TLC than most get.
The same stiffness that some find vulgar gives the annual an architectural quality, the classic type stands up well to the heat of a Washington summer, and the blooms appear all season long to attract butterflies and hummingbirds.
If you are not convinced, there is a new reason to like this plant urchin: The breeders who work on annuals have made a major breakthrough in recent years with a new class of geranium (or pelargonium, if you are a purist) that will provide new forms, new colors and better performance by crossing ivy-leafed geraniums with zonal types.
These novel “interspecific” geraniums “perform spectacularly well in all sorts of terrible weather stress,” said Allan Armitage, a floriculture expert at the the University of Georgia.
Zonal geraniums are the classic stubby, large-leafed plants with darker zone markings on the foliage and large flower clusters on long stalks. Ivy-leafed varieties are compact trailers that smother themselves in blooms, making them a favorite for hanging baskets and window boxes.
Interspecifics combine the heat tolerance of zonal geraniums with the superior performance (and in some varieties, the look) of ivy-leafed geraniums. The “ivies” preen and strut in places like California and Switzerland, but the heat and humidity of the Mid-Atlantic region is not kind to them. Once night temperatures rise to the low 70s, they flower grudgingly if at all and generally go downhill.
The new hybrids overcome this problem, giving gardeners healthier-looking geraniums with as many as a third more blooms than zonals.
Since a company named Goldsmith Seeds introduced the first seven years ago, other hybridizers have been scrambling to produce their own. The company, based in Gilroy, Calif., was later acquired by Syngenta Flowers. The hybrids are now widely available at garden centers and mass merchandisers — look for “interspecific” on the label — and more are on the way.
The inventor is a hybridizer named Mitch Hanes, who has been breeding new geraniums since 1987. Others had crossed zonal and ivy-leafed geraniums before, but the resulting seedlings were inherently feeble. His introductions were the product of a lot of genetic refining through additional cross-breeding, he said.