I’m not really sure what came over me, but on Beltane I was really struck with the urge to plant geraniums. Big, red, in-your-face geraniums. This is a novel moment in my life: up until now, I actively eschewed geraniums because I don’t like their smell. (I have the same problem with petunias.) For whatever reason, though, I just had to get a nice pot of red zonal geraniums.
Zonal geraniums are the classic geranium, and red is its classic color. As I learned later, though, there’s a lot that goes into a name. “Zonal” here just means a geranium started from a cutting rather than by seed. The “geranium” part, though, is much more confusing. Scientifically, the geranium is not a geranium at all: it belongs to the Pelargonium genus, which goes by the common names “storkbills” or “geraniums.” There is also a scientific genus called Geranium, and its common name is the “cranesbills.” Clearly, there are some botanical similarities between the two–indeed, Linnaeus originally classed both under the word “Geranium,” which lead to the verbal confusion today. At any rate, the Pelargonium genus is the one magical practitioners call “geranium”, and my plant–Pelargonium x hortorum–along with other common pelargoniums (P. maculatum and P. odoratissimum, for example) share certain magical properties.
According to Scott Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, geraniums have a feminine gender, are ruled by the planet Venus and the element water, and have powers of fertility, health, love, and protection. Cunningham notes that
Geraniums of all types are protective when grown in the garden or brought into the home freshly cut and placed into water.
The geranium protects against snakes, for: “Snakes will not go / Where geraniums grow.”
A plot of red geraniums, planted near the Witch’s cottage, told of coming visitors by their movements. The flowers were magically charged to point to the direction of the approaching strangers and thus warn the Witch of their impending arrival.
Banks or pots of red geraniums are quite protective, and strengthen health.
Pink-flowered geraniums are used in love spells, while the white varieties increase fertility.
Curanderos in contemporary Mexico clans and heal patients by brushing them with red geraniums, together with fresh rue and pepper tree branches.
The rose geranium (Pelargonium gravolens) with its highly scented leaves, is used in protection sachets, or the fresh leaves are rubbed onto doorknobs and windows to protect them.
All of the scented geraniums have various magical properties, most of which can be deduced from the scent. Nutmeg-scented geraniums possess much the same powers as nutmeg, and so on.
I noticed that the red geraniums got a special call out in this description. They do seem to have an enduring folk connection to witches. Ellen Dugan repeats as much in her book, Garden Witchery, in an anecdote describing helping an old woman out at a garden shop. When Dugan had finished helping the woman load her garden purchases into her car, the woman turned to her and said:
When I was a girl, my grandmother always told me that you could spot the good witches in the neighborhood by the red geraniums in their window boxes. […] Another way to tell was to look and see if they planted red geraniums or red begonias in circles around their trees. (94)
Maybe that was part of my geranium compulsion? Maybe I could do with a little protection. Maybe it was just the love and joy of Beltane calling to a like correspondence? At any rate, I’m really enjoying my flowers.
Zonal Geranium Care
J.C. Wilkinson, April 2009
Planting: Most zonal geraniums flower best in full sun, needing at least 6 hours of direct sunlight daily. If your summer temperatures reach over 90 degrees, you should plant our zonal geraniums in partial shade, or at least shaded from the hottest afternoon sun. While they will not bloom quite as well in partial shade, most varieties still grow vigorously and put forth satisfactory blooms.
Zonal geraniums love rich, well drained soil, especially with added compost. In pots, you should use a good container potting mix that holds water well. A mix with plenty of peat moss is good, but avoid a mix with too much vermiculite. A good homemade mixture is equal parts of peat moss, perlite, and composted manure.
Zonal geranium leaves seem to die and turn brown for no reason. Since they are susceptible to fungal disease, this can be a problem in humid climates. Deadheading and removing dead leaves will keep them looking their best, and keep them blooming all season.
Fertilizing and Watering: Zonal geraniums are heavy feeders that need to be fed every two weeks with a balanced, water soluble fertilizer. You can also use time-release fertilizer that lasts the entire season. Feeding container-grown plants regularly is very important for best blooming.
The most important consideration in watering zonal geraniums is that they must be watered thoroughly, but allowed to dry out between waterings. They don’t like wet feet, but must be kept watered regularly during very hot summer weather. To check for soil moisture in container grown plants, stick your finger down to the second knuckle. If it’s dry, you need to water.
Overwintering: You can move your zonal geraniums indoors for the winter, or take cuttings, which root easily. You can keep them dormant over the winter as well by taking them out of their pots, cutting them back by two thirds, removing the soil from the roots, and hanging them upside down in a cool, dry basement or cellar, and spraying their roots occasionally to keep them from getting too dry.