Don’t forget to stop and smell the leaves

January 15, 2014

In winter our world seems turned upside down and inside out. While we grow most blossoming plants for their flowers, some are actually grown for their leaves. One such plant has seed pods that look like beaks of giant birds, and indeed are known as by the folk name “storksbills,” but are really members of the Pelargonium family. These are the delightful and eminently useful scented geraniums. Their scent is in their leaves, not in their flowers. When crushed or even brushed, the leaves give off perfumed oils.

Unlike more common garden geraniums, most scented geraniums have tiny, inconspicuous flowers. Often the leaves are lacey and finely cut, but some scented geraniums sport thick, succulent leaves. The scents run the gamut of just about every imaginable aroma from roses to lemons to chocolate. There are also scented geraniums that mimic apricot and even green apples. You can devote a garden or windowsill to collecting them all.

Scented geranium leaves can retain their fragrance for years, so they make nice additions to sachets. Try adding some to boiling water and straining them into a warm bath. Cut the stems and leaves to use in flower arrangements. Dried, they can be stored in airtight containers or left out as potpourri.

The leaves can be used to make jams and jellies, cakes, puddings and custards. Steep them in hot water for a refreshing tea. Try placing some of the leaves on the bottom of a greased and floured cake pan to lend a subtle taste and fragrance to the cake.

Because scented geraniums are only reliably hardy in USDA Zones 10-11, they lend themselves to indoor culture.

For best results, choose a spot away from drafts with bright light. These can become quite large, up to several feet tall and two feet wide, though they are easily kept smaller by pruning.

In late spring or summer you may spot a few of the tiny flowers.

Pot them up in well-draining soil that is not too rich. When grown in rich soil, the essential oils can become diluted and weak. Scented geraniums can put up with almost any soil type, but do best in slightly acidic soil with a pH of 6.0-6.8.

While some varieties can be started from seed, it is best to start with plants or cuttings.

They are able to go a long time between waterings and as with many plants, it is best to water too little rather than too much. Only water them when the top inch of soil feels dry.  That said, if you forget to water them for a long time the leaves may turn brown and fall off. No worries; these are hardy plants that will bounce right back.

These low-care plants need very little if any fertilizer. You can feed potted scented geraniums a good organic fertilizer at half the recommended strength while they are actively growing in the spring and early summer. Never fertilize at all during the winter when the plants are almost dormant.

Because you want more leaves than flowers, pinch back the growing stems for a bushier plant.

Scented geraniums are usually free of pests or disease, though you may see white flies or other insects. Spray the undersides of the leaves with indoor insecticidal soap, and spray again a week later to kill any remaining white flies. Always throw out any dead leaves that fall around the plants because they could harbor diseases or insects.

To increase your collection or to have gift plants, take cuttings about three or four inches long. Remove all leaves from the bottom quarter of the stem.

Stick the cuttings into a pot of moist sand.

After a few weeks the cuttings will be rooted and ready to transplant into small pots. Try some scented geraniums for your very own fragrant indoor garden, as a source of kitchen herbs and potpourri. Stop and smell the roses, or better yet stop and smell the leaves. Why stop and smell the roses, when you can grow scented geraniums and ignore the flowers and smell the leaves?

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.

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