Gardening Society Report - Jan 2017

"Our Charlie’s Pelargonium"

Dorothy Richards

The word ‘Geranium ‘ is used so liberally that it leads to lots of confusion in the plant world so the speaker, Dorothy Richards, was hoping to sort out the problem. Lots of people use the word ‘geranium’ for ‘pelargonium’ and this causes misunderstandings in conversations. Using a rare pelargonium of her own and a couple of other pelargoniums, she gave some idea of the many different varieties there are. There was also an unusual geranium, one of the tender ones, to contrast with the pelargoniums.

The rare plant, Pelargonium ‘Our Charlie’ had been in the family for many years. In the days when Garden Centres didn’t exist and plants were bought at nurseries and on market stalls, keen gardeners were always thrilled to get a decent plant from a neighbour or relative. Dorothy’s Mum, Lily, was delighted to get this plant from her brother, Charlie. It had no name so she always called it ‘Our Charlie’s and he had got it from a friend at a Catholic Working Men’s Club. Lily, and then Dorothy, have propagated it, every year, for almost fifty years and for most of that time, their plants have been the only ones known to exist. What do you do when you realise that you are the caretaker of a rare, possibly unique, plant?

The question was left hanging in the air while images of really garden worthy geraniums, both hardy and tender were seen. This, again, let people see the difference between geraniums and pelargoniums. The geraniums, (the hardy ones), completely disappear underground in winter and reappear in spring with thin, stiff stems, each carrying the small, mainly single, flowers, in delicate shades of purple, pink and occasionally, white, in amongst a froth of leaves. When the flowers have been fertilised, the seed cases, (or fruits, to give the botanic name) were thought to look like a bird’s head with a long beak and this is where we get the common name ‘Crane’s bill’ for all the geraniums. The original wild geranium is the familiar ‘Herb Robert’.

Plant families are sometimes hard to understand so Dorothy used the idea of counties and county towns to explain them. We are all quite happy with the idea that the County of Oxfordshire has several towns or cities within its boundaries but it takes its name from one of them, Oxford. In the plant world, the geranium gives its name to the whole family, Geraniaceae, and another member of the same family is pelargonium. Just as two towns in a county can be completely different, geraniums and pelargoniums are completely different. The family link between these two very different plants, she thought, is the ‘cranes bill’ shape of the seed case.

Again, to illustrate the difference between the two, colourful images of pelargoniums at the National Collection of Pelargoniums were shown. Dorothy’s rare plant, Pelargonium ‘Our Charlie’, is now included there and may well go into production after trials. (These plants originate in South Africa and are certainly not hardy.)

Two other suggestions arose from the talk as well. When travelling about the country, on holiday for example, visit some National Collections of plants. You can find where they are by looking on the website for ‘Plant Heritage’. Also, treasure those old plants you have in your garden. Some of them may no longer be in production and so, apart from your garden, this genetic material has been lost and we do not know what we will need in the future, to make new medicines, for example.

Our meeting on 23rd February is an illustrated talk called ‘A Meadow in my Garden’ given by a local seedsman called Paul Jupp. He will be bringing seeds to sell and they are blended to suit different soil types. The meeting starts at 7.30pm and visitors are most welcome.

Dorothy Richards