Wild Cranesbill (aka Wild Geranium)
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Maria Clauser
Posted on: March 30, 2002

Never did make a MAIL order for the mint-rose scented geranium [asked about in a previous Q&A], but drove out there (45 minutes from Toronto) to visit your nursery with my family. I did buy a variety of geraniums (including the mint-rose) and other beautiful variegated herbs. All the plants look like they all have had special attention! We plan to visit again in mid spring. Thank you for answering my other questions in other letters, and my wild cranesbill are growing (right from the seed package... no fridge storage either...).

Wild cranesbill are also called wild geranium, just wondering why they are on page 16 in your catalogue and not on page 22 like the other geraniums.

Yes, it does seem that wild cranesbill (Geranium maculatum) should be placed with scented geraniums. The reason has to do with the confusing way that names are sometimes applied to plants.

The scented geraniums belong to a genus (a botanical classification) called Pelargonium. The cranesbills belong to a different genus called Geranium. Botanically, the two groups belong to the same family, the Geraniaceae, but botanists feel that the groups are sufficiently different to warrant being kept separate.

The source of the confusion comes from the fact that somehow the common name "geranium" got assigned to the botanical genus "Pelargonium". Why that happened is not clear. It may be that at one time botanists placed the Pelargonium in the Geranium genus.

Horticulturally, the cranesbills are very different from the Pelargonium "geraniums". The cranesbills are generally hardy in temperate zones while the Pelargoniums are not. They also tolerate shade better than the Pelargoniums. And the Pelargoniums are much more promiscuous than the Geraniums, having been crossed to produce numerous hybrids of all shapes, sizes and scents.

Here is what Helen Van Pelt Wilson, author of "The Joy of Geraniums" (William Morrow & Co., 1972), wrote about the geranium name:

"This plant we see everywhere and call a geranium because our grandmothers did is not traveling under its right name. True, it is of the Geraniaceae family, but its particular genus is rightly Pelargonium. It was commonly called Storksbill by early enthusiasts for some real or fancied resemblance of its seed case to the long and slender form of a stork’s bill. Within the family another genus, the Erodium, was designated Heronsbill; a third retained the name Geranium and was called Cranesbill.

"Between Geranium and Pelargonium there is this botanical difference: the Geranium is "regular," the Pelargonium is "irregular." The five Geranium petals are evenly formed and regularly spaced; the Pelargonium, particularly in its early forms before man tampered with nature, had two- and three-petal groupings, the upper two petals often larger and more richly colored than the lower, In the species this differentiation remains. It often disappears from the varieties. The Pelargonium is also blessed with a nectar tube adnate – meaning "congenitally grown together" – to the flower stalk for almost the whole length. This is the most marked of the differences of form."

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