For hundreds of years, scented geraniums have brightened gardens, improved health, flavored foods, scented baths, and refreshed body and spirit. Now these traditional favorites are gaining the recognition they deserve.
Officially named Herb of the Year for 2006, scented geraniums are easy to grow in gardens, pots, and window boxes. What do they smell like? Rose geranium (Pelargonium graveolens) is the most familiar variety, but the fragrance list includes lemon, orange, lime, strawberry, peppermint, camphor, nutmeg, spice, apple, apricot, coconut, filbert, ginger, and dozens more.
A Little History
Most of the world’s 250 to 280 naturally occurring pelargonium species are native to South Africa. Sailors rounding the Cape of Good Hope introduced the plants to Europe in the 1600s, and scented geraniums have been collected, propagated, hybridized, and enjoyed there ever since. Thomas Jefferson brought several varieties to the White House in the early 1800s. The plants’ popularity peaked in the 1890s.
In its large colonial herb garden behind a 235-year-old historic house, the Staten Island Herb Society of New York grows more than 300 herbs. “Some of the most popular,” says herbalist Gert Coleman, “are in our bed of scented geraniums. From school groups to casual visitors, everyone wants to touch and smell these aromatic leaves.” Coleman combines peppermint-scented geranium with orange rinds and cloves for potpourri and adds rose- and lemon-scented leaves to cake icings and iced teas.
“Nothing says ‘herb garden’ like scented geraniums,” she says. “Through these plants, we are able to educate the public about the power of scents to enchant and enliven. It’s too cold here for the plants to survive the winter, so in autumn we dig them up and give them to schoolteachers with sunny windows.”
If you haven’t yet brushed against a rose-scented geranium, you’re in for a treat. The fragrance really smells like roses. When attar of rose (a highly concentrated extract of rose blossoms) became prohibitively expensive in the mid-19th century, French perfumers discovered that the essential oil of rose geranium made an excellent, affordable substitute. Continuing demand for geranium essential oil has made pelargonium species an important cash crop in China, Egypt, India, Russia, and other countries.
Rose geranium essential oil is highly regarded as an antiseptic wound healer with antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties. You’ll find it in small amounts in many aromatherapy blends. Recently, rose geranium hydrosol (a “flower water” byproduct of the essential oil steam distillation process) has become a popular ingredient in skin care products. Look for rose geranium hydrosol in natural products stores, and use it as a toner for all skin types. It can be sprayed directly on the skin, added to water for a refreshing beverage, or blended with other hydrosols such as peppermint for topical and culinary use.
Rose geranium hydrosol may be your pet’s best friend since it deodorizes fur and may help repel ticks if applied often. If the hydrosol isn’t available, substitute strongly brewed geranium tea or mix a few drops of rose geranium essential oil with 4 ounces of water in a spray bottle, shake vigorously, and apply, keeping the blend away from your dog’s nose and eyes.
To brew a scented geranium tea, pour boiling water over fresh or dried leaves (organically grown, of course). Start with 1 tablespoon fresh leaves or 1 teaspoon dried leaves per cup, and let steep for 3 to 5 minutes. Too strong? Add more hot water. Too weak? Add more geranium leaf. Alternatively, flavor any cup of black, green, or herbal tea by adding a geranium leaf to the teapot. Rose geranium is said to have a calming influence that reduces tension, stress, and relieves anxiety. It is also recommended for relieving premenstrual tension, menopausal problems, and poor circulation.
No matter where scented geraniums grow, their leaves belong in your kitchen. Peppermint-, lemon-, and rose-scented geraniums were popular flavoring agents in Victorian times. The leaves were cooked or baked in desserts and other dishes, then removed before serving or left in place as decoration.
To make geranium sugar, layer 12 to 15 plant leaves with 4 cups sugar in a tightly closed jar and let it stand for several days, during which time the sugar will absorb the leaves’ fragrance. Sprinkle the scented sugar on cakes, use it in baked goods, or sweeten tea with it.
For scented geranium cookies, start with any plain or butter cookie recipe. Replace the recipe’s sugar with geranium-scented sugar and then add 1/2 teaspoon grated orange rind and 1/3 cup chopped geranium leaves. Bake as directed.
To make scented geranium jelly, follow any apple jelly recipe. Add a few geranium leaves and strain them out before pouring the jelly into jars, or for a more decorative effect, line each jar with leaves before filling it with hot jelly.
To flavor a cake, line the bottom of a buttered cake pan with scented geranium leaves and pour the cake batter over them. A plain pound cake or similar recipe works well. When you turn the cake out of its pan, the geranium leaves will decorate its top and their fragrance will infuse every bite.
Other culinary uses for scented geraniums include ice cream, sorbet, fruit punch, and wine cups. Lemon- and rose-scented geraniums also combine well with lemon verbena, lemon basil, and mints in vinegar recipes.
In the Garden
For maximum flavor and fragrance, pick leaves on a dry, sunny day just after flowers begin to appear. To dry leaves for future use, spread them on absorbent paper in a dark, airy room, or dry them on cookie trays in a barely warm oven.
Scented geraniums are tender perennials, meaning that they grow year-round outdoors in mild climates but won’t survive hard frosts. Their favorite temperatures are 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and they do best in slightly acid soil. Indoor plants need as much light as possible, along with regular watering. Container plants need ample air circulation, and all geraniums require good drainage. Late winter or early spring pruning stimulates new growth and keeps plants looking attractive.
Selected Sources “Biological Activities and Chemicals . . . in Pelargonium graveolens. . . ” by James A. Duke, PhD; “Essential Oil of Geranium” by Dorene Petersen; “Scented Geraniums” by Donna Frawley; “Scented Geraniums, Pelargonium species” by David Hyde; “Sweet Scents of Success: Scented Geraniums (Pelargoniums), Herb of the Year 2006” by Charles E. Voigt; “Using Scented Geraniums . . . in the Kitchen” by Susan Belsinger, International Herb Association Personal communication: Gert Coleman, Staten Island Herb Society; Marge Powell, International Herb Association, 1/06
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