Scented geraniums, actually pelargoniums, are in the same genus as the colorful geraniums grown as annuals in beds and containers. However, these geraniums are primarily grown for their fragrant leaves.
These tender perennials originally from South Africa can bring the scent of rose, citrus, fruit, nut, mint and other fragrances to your home and garden. Site them where their delightful scents can drift into walkways, porches and patios. When used in containers with other flowering plants, the leaves add texture as well as fragrance. The edible flowers and leaves, particularly from the rose and citrus varieties, can be used to flavor baked goods, beverages, oils and vinegars.
Most varieties grow well in full sun and well-drained soil amended with organic matter to retain moisture. Grow them organically if you plan to eat them. Water when dry, and keep mulch away from the stem to prevent disease. Fertilize during the growing season according to cultural instructions. When night temperatures drop to 45 degrees, it's time to bring the plants indoors. Placed in a sunny window or under grow lights in winter, these plants can enliven and refresh the indoors.
If your indoor space is limited, smaller plants can be easily propagated from cuttings in the fall. Select healthy stems with three to five leaf nodes, and cut just below a node. Remove any flowers or buds and the bottom two or three leaves. Fill a 2-inch container with moist potting soil, make a hole for the stem and plant the cutting, burying one or two nodes. Firm the soil and water. The cuttings should root in about four weeks.
There are dozens of cultivars and great diversity of leaf shapes, textures and shades of green. Leaf shapes can be palmate, finely dissected or rounded, and the surface may be smooth or fuzzy. Some varieties have silvery or variegated foliage accented with white, gold or cream. Flowers are often small and have five petals -- two upper and three lower. They bloom in clusters of white, pink or lavender with darker markings on the two upper petals.
A geranium's scent may be strong or subtle and perceived differently by one person or another. 'Nutmeg' has a spicy, pungent scent unlike culinary nutmeg. Likewise, the pleasing scent of 'Old Spice' is not reminiscent of the popular men's cologne.
Rose-scented geraniums are among the most popular. 'Dr. Livingston's Skeleton Rose' is named for its narrowly dissected leaves. 'Rober's Lemon Rose' has a tomato leaf shape and a combination of rose and lemon scents. 'Variegated Rose' has a green leaf with a thin white margin, and 'Mint Rose Variegated' has variegated green and white leaves and a mint/rose scent.
The deeply cut foliage of 'Pungent Peppermint' adds interesting texture to mixed plantings. 'Chocolate Peppermint' has green leaves with a dark brown blotch in the center. 'Wooly Peppermint' has a trailing habit, dark green, fuzzy leaves and sprays of white flowers. Consider it for a spiller in your mixed container.
There are many choice varieties of intensely lemon-scented geraniums. 'Mabel Gray' is tall with sharply pointed leaves, while 'Frensham' has fan-shaped leaves. Pelargonium crispum has small, crinkly leaves, upright habit, and is often trained as a standard.
Other classic scents include apple, coconut, lime and strawberry. Whether you are just getting started or want to add to a scented geranium collection, local herb societies and specialty herb growers are likely to have some selections for you. Twenty varieties will be available for purchase from the Penn State Master Gardeners at the Garden Marketplace at Shady Side Academy Senior School ice rink on April 20.
While scented geraniums are delightful in the garden, many varieties become splendid in your kitchen. Fragrance becomes flavor. The flowers can be added fresh to a fruit or mixed green salad, or you can choose to sugar them to decorate cakes and breads.
The leaves are more versatile. They can be used fresh or preserved in many ways for later use. Grind fresh leaves with sugar in a food processor and stir into a fruit salad.
Make simple syrup of equal parts sugar and water. Boil to dissolve and reduce somewhat. While hot, add up to an equal amount of leaves. Cool, strain and store up to two weeks in the refrigerator or longer in the freezer. This syrup can be used in drink recipes and to enhance sorbets and granitas.
Infuse the flavor into sugar by layering clean, dry leaves with sugar in a sealed container. Shake every few days for a few weeks. Remove the leaves and store in an airtight container. Use to flavor your tea or in baking.
Making jelly is a fun way to preserve the flavor of scented geranium leaves. A staple at the Edible Flower Food Fest (July 18 at the Buffalo Inn, South Park) is Rose Geranium Jelly made from leaves of 'Rober's Lemon Rose.' Here's the recipe:
Rose Geranium Jelly
4 cups fresh or bottled apple juice
2 cups packed, fresh rose geranium leaves, washed ('Rober's Lemon Rose' is my favorite variety)
4 tablespoons bottled lemon juice
5 cups sugar
6 ounces liquid pectin
Bring apple juice and leaves to a boil in a large saucepan. Cover and then remove from heat. Steep overnight at room temperature or up to 3 days refrigerated.
Strain into a 4-6 quart deep saucepan. Press on the leaves to extract all flavor, then discard the leaves. Stir in lemon juice and sugar and bring to a full boil over high heat and boil 5 minutes. Add pectin and return to a full boil, stirring constantly. Continue to boil for 2 minutes.
Remove from heat and skim off any foam. Ladle jelly into hot sterilized jars, leaving 1/4-inch head space. Seal with new lids and metal rings. Process for 10 minutes in a boiling-water bath.
Store vacuum-sealed jars in a cool, dry, dark place. This jelly continues to solidify for several days.
Yields 6-plus half pint jars.
Lyn Lang and Susan Marquesen are Penn State master gardeners. Ms. Marquesen is also a Penn State master food preserver. Columns by master gardeners will sometimes appear in place of the Garden Q&A by Sandy Feather, a Penn State Extension educator.