Sometimes the leaves, not the flowers, tell the story of an aromatic plant. I fell in love with the fragrant leaves of the scented geranium from my first sniff. From the rich, lemony smell of the citronella type to the green, floral, minty smell of a peppermint one, it is a wonder to rub your fingers over the rough, intricately shaped leaves to test the scent. There are many varieties–spicy ones, minty ones, as well as a beautiful pine-scented type with hints of rose and nutmeg. There are several hundred species in the wild. I once had a lovely chocolate mint variety that I worked very hard to keep alive in southern Florida but it did not make it through the hot summer months. It had a lovely, deep minty smell (the chocolate was mostly in my imagination) but it was a striking plant with purple streaked leaves. I gave up on scented geraniums for a number of years but recently bought six small plants – rose geraniums and attar of roses geraniums. Within a few weeks, the rose geraniums seemed to realize they were in Florida and quickly withered and died. The attar of roses plants, however, have stayed with me. I recently moved them into my office to get photos and just the act of moving them and putting them in a smaller room served to bring out the scent. They filled the room with a heady scent of rich rose with a lovely touch of green herbs.
Scented geraniums originate from South Africa where summers are hot and winters mild. They are evergreen perennials in their native habitat and grow in areas with either summer rains or rains that fall year-round. Perfumer Sophia Shuttleworth of African Aromatics in South Africa shares a story told about two gentlemen, Francis Masson and his friend Col. Robert Gordon, commander of Dutch forces in South Africa, who distributed scented geraniums to the world in the 1700s. Francis Masson was a Scottish botanist and gardener who would collect the geraniums for Col. Gordon to culture in his gardens to send out on ships. Sadly, Col. Gordon committed suicide when the British took over the Cape in 1795. Many years later Mary Gunn, a librarian and self-taught botanist, was trying to find his house and gardens; the house was called “Schoonder Zigt”. Just as she was about to give up she saw a sign with faint letters spelling out the name of the house. An old woman living nearby said that a ghostly apparition of a man dressed in clothes from a bygone era was sometimes seen leaving the house and wandering into the garden. Botanists in South Africa continue to tell the tale of Col. Gordon wandering in the garden to see if the geranium cuttings have taken and to rub their fragrant leaves between his fingers, to take pleasure in their delightful aroma even in the afterlife.
The leaves of pelargonium species are rough and often covered with fine hairs. Scent glands are found in association with these hairs and contain the scented oil produced by the plant. Brushing lightly against a plant is enough to release the oil into the air. They may be used for their medicinal properties in Africa, including intestinal problems, kidney complaints, fevers and respiratory ailments. In aromatherapy, geranium essential oil is thought to be relaxing and good for the skin as well as to alleviate the symptoms of menopause. Scented geraniums are distinct from the showy red geraniums that we think of in window boxes and gardens. The flowers of the pelargonium species are usually small and are outshone by the often multi-colored leaves that may be deeply divided or softly rounded. If you plant them in a variety of places in your garden, rubbing against them as you water, weed and prune allows you to enjoy the fragrant results. They can be grown outside in Zones 8 and up, dying back to the ground during winter in Zone 8 but coming back. They need plenty of sunlight and rich soil that drains well, warm summers and mild winters. Their basic requirements are well-drained soil, plenty of light and room for air movement. They will also grow well as a potted or hanging plant indoors in a sunny area. They may be toxic to dogs and cats due to the presence of some of the aromatic oils like geraniol and linalool.
The most common use for scented geraniums is to flavor sugar for use in cooking or to sweeten tea. Leaves from any scented geranium can be layered with a cup or two of sugar and left for a week then used in teas, cakes or cookies. Sophia provided me with one of her favorite recipes that she uses with the scented geraniums from her garden.
Spiced Scented Geranium Arancello
1 ½ to 2 cups scented geranium leaves
Peels from 5 large oranges
1 cinnamon stick
3 cardamom pods
1 vanilla pod
1 liter vodka
600 g (about 2 ¾ cups) caster sugar
500 ml (about 2 1/8 cups) water
Wash and dry the scented geranium leaves, use more or less depending on strength of scent and preference. Remove the bitter white pith from the peels and cut into strips. Put the leaves, zest, spices and vanilla pods in a large jar and cover with the vodka. Seal and leave for 2 weeks, shaking the jar each day. At the end of the two weeks put the sugar and water in a pot, heat and stir until the sugar dissolves. Leave to cool to room temperature. Add to the vodka mix and leave for another week, shaking the jar regularly.
Strain out the leaves, peels and spices and put into bottles. Decorate the bottles if you like with fresh leaves, orange peel, and spices.
Sophia Shuttleworth and African Aromatics can be found at www.africanaromatics.com.
Photography by Elise Pearlstine