Stillwater News Press


March 22, 2014

In the Garden 03-23-14

Some foliage is fragrant

When people consider plants with fragrance their first thought is the flower. Roses, lilies, lilacs or jasmines, flower fragrance is a most appealing trait. There is another way for fragrance to accompany a plant, though, and this is with fragrant foliage. Most herbs fall in this category — mint, lemon balm, rosemary and basil to name a few. Tomatoes and Asian ginger fill the bill. Scented geraniums are probably the biggest family of fragrant foliage plants.

I am not sure how they gained the nickname “geranium” for they belong to the genus Pelargonium. The foliage can look comparable, but that is where the similarity ends. Most Pelargonium (Pels for short) come from South Africa. This genus includes the common summer favorite Zonal, pansy-faced Regal, ivy-leaf and scented geraniums. Each of these types have their own merits, but for scented geraniums, it’s all about the leaves and fragrance.

So numerous and varied are the scented geraniums, some nurseries specialize and grow only this class. Compulsive plant fanatics like me can easily become a collector and, if not careful, be overrun with varieties that, unfortunately, will not overwinter outdoors in Oklahoma.

By far the most familiar scented geranium is the citronella plant. Used as a mosquito deterrent on patios and poolside, “pleasing” is not how I would describe the smell. Nevertheless, it does serve a purpose.

One of the oldest scented varieties is known simply as “rose” geranium. The leaves of this variety were and still are plucked, gently rinsed and used to line cake pans. As the batter bakes, a subtle flavor is imparted to the cake. One site states it is possible to use all scented geranium leaves in this way, but a few (like citronella, musk, pine-scented and camphor) would leave me wary of the flavor imparted.

Not only are Pelargonium species collected for their fragrance — many are drawn to varieties with dramatic or unusual foliage patterns. The two basic leaf shapes are rounded with a scalloped edge and lobed or dissected with a wave on the outer edge. From there, leaf color of scented geraniums may be green, grayish or two-tone. Foliage may have a velvet or felt-like appearance throughout or just on the underside. “Crispum” varieties have very crinkled foliage. “Skeleton” looks as if the leaf is all veins.

Standing in front of an assortment of scented geraniums it becomes hard for me to distinguish the difference in some varieties. “Orange” may begin to smell like “lemon” or “old spice” like “wild spice” so choosing varieties often falls back to appearance.

LeeAnn Barton has worked with nurseries for more than 20 years. She digs in the dirt in Stillwater. Direct questions to her by emailing

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