Cranesbill – this is not your mother’s Geranium

28 Jun

There are plants I love because they are workhorses: neither dramatic nor troublesome, they do their job in the garden quietly and with elegance. One of these is Cranesbill.

Cranesbill is the common name for the botanical genus called Geranium. Confusingly, “geranium” is also the common name of members of the genus Pelargonium (commonly known as ‘storksbill’ in distinction from ‘cranesbill’), which are also in the Geraniaceae family. Linnaeus originally included all the species in one genus, Geranium, but they were later separated into two genera by Charles L’Héritier in 1789.

Gardeners and the horticultural trade often refer to true geraniums as “hardy geraniums”, to distinguish them from the less hardy pelargoniums (generally grown as annuals in temperate climes), and most garden “geraniums” (without the ‘hardy’ appellation) are in fact pelargoniums (storksbills), as opposed to true geraniums (cranesbills).

Are you confused yet? Well, nomenclature aside, Cranesbill is a really terrific plant for all kinds of gardens. It isn’t fussy about light, tolerating full sun to considerable shade. It isn’t fussy about soil or water either, although it’s happier with some extra water during the dry summer months. Cranesbill has a delicious herbal fragrance, pleasant to us humans but avoided by deer.  It is attractive to garden-friendly wildlife, including bees and butterflies. And Cranesbill is so easy to propagate – you just remove some of the rooted portion from the edge of the clump and it will produce a whole new plant in no time.

Cranesbill is a small to medium sized plant; available cultivars range in size from a few inches tall to around 18 inches in height. They have delightful flowers, most often in the pink to purple range, that appear in profusion during the spring and sometimes at other times of the year. When not in bloom, Cranesbill is nearly as lovely, with round leaves, sometimes deeply cut, in many shades of green. On some varieties the leaves are frilly, on others scalloped. Some varieties have deep plum or russet leaves, sometimes all year, sometimes in the fall. This is a very diverse group of plants.

In the garden, Cranesbill can be used in a perennial border, woodland or rock garden setting, and it makes a great small-scale ground cover for both sunny and partly shady locations. Some Cranesbills have a trailing growth habit and look wonderful cascading over a rock wall. There are so many uses for this plant – I think there is a place for Cranesbill in nearly every garden.

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