GERANIUMS – SORRY, PELARGONIUMS

by Abellio

Sori, 14 May 2018

I’ve written about cacti in an earlier post. In that case it was in a plug for more cactus growing in LA. The micro (really micro) climate on the balcony of our apartment at the sea, coupled with the long periods when no-one is here to water plants, also makes this an ideal space for cactus growing. My mother-in-law introduced cacti to the balcony several decades ago, and my wife expanded the collection by borrowing a few cacti from our next-door neighbour. However, I am saddened to report that a particularly harsh winter this year, when Jack Frost managed to lay his bony fingers on the balcony, has put paid to some of the cacti. We were faced with blackened cacti corpses when we arrived a few days ago and have been mournfully wondering what to do ever since. As part of this wondering, we visited the local flower shop, to see if they had any suggestions about how we might be able to breathe some life back into our blackened cacti – and to see if they sold any cacti should we decide that there was nothing for it but to replace them. The answer was negative in both cases.

In any event, as is usual in these cases the discussion went off on several tangents. For reasons which I can no longer remember now, one of these tangents was geraniums. I’m rather fond of geraniums. My mother had large beds (or what I remember as large beds) of geraniums in her garden in Eritrea, which the memory bank of my mind suggests looked something like this.

The bright red of the flowers pleased me no end – I suppose bright primary colours appeal to five and six year-olds – and I really liked the scent which emanated from broken leaves and stems. I must confess to having been a terror in the garden. I was not above decapitating flowers or casually tearing off leaves and stems. I must have driven my mother wild with my antics.

But coming back to our local flower shop: the lady in charge said that geraniums had a hard time in this climate because it was too humid. This rather surprised me, I thought that all geraniums needed was a lot of sun. I started looking around, and I discovered that it was indeed rare to see geraniums around here. Her comments also got me to engage in my favourite pastime: surfing the web to find out more about geraniums. I am ready to report back.

The first thing I discovered is that geraniums should not actually be called geraniums. Their correct name is pelargoniums. It seems that when the first pelargoniums were brought back to Europe in the 17th Century, gardeners thought they were cousins to the geraniums already present here. By the time botanists realized their mistake, it was too late. The name geranium has stuck. To make up for this mistake, let me throw in a picture here of one of the many real geraniums, the Geranium platypetalum.

The introduction of pelargoniums to Europe is the story of European colonization of the rest of the world. It was the Dutch who first brought pelargoniums back to Europe, after they had established themselves in what was to become Cape Town.

They, like European colonizers everywhere, looked around to see what plants they could find that might have a utility back home – and this included selling them to wealthy individuals who cultivated large gardens full of exotic plants. Over the years, they and the English who came after them found many different species of pelargonium in South Africa – some 90% of the 300 or so species in the family are to be found in South Africa. But I will concentrate here on the three pelargoniums which are the ancestors of pretty much all the pelargoniums we grow today.

There is Pelargonium inquinans, seen here in the wild

and here somewhat closer up.

There is Pelargonium zonale.

These two, hybridized together, have formed all the “common geraniums” or “zonal geraniums” which you will find in flower beds. My mother’s geraniums must have been of this type.

Then there is Pelargonium peltatum

which is the ancestor of all those “ivy-leaved geraniums” which trail delightfully from balconies such as the ones we shall shortly be seeing in Vienna and in every Austrian town and village.

As I said earlier, it was wealthy individuals with a passion for gardening who in the early decades of European colonization drove the domestication and spread of the myriad foreign plants which poured into Europe from every corner of the globe. In the pelargonium story, two in particular stand out. The first is the Right Reverend Henry Compton, Bishop of London.

Compton was born in 1632 into an aristocratic family, being the sixth and youngest son of the 2nd Earl of Northampton. At the age of 43 he was appointed, in short order, Lord Bishop of London, Dean of the Chapel Royal, and member of the Privy Council, and he was entrusted with the education of the two royal princesses, Mary and Anne, nieces of the King, Charles II. He clearly moved in high circles! His career suffered a dip when, ten years later, Charles’s brother, James II, acceded to the throne. Compton was strongly opposed to Roman Catholicism. Consequently, James, a Catholic convert, relieved him of all his political positions. Luckily for him, James II lasted a mere six years before being ousted during the “Glorious Revolution” by James’s daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange (great-grandson of William the Silent, Prince of Orange, whom I mentioned in an earlier post). As might be expected, Compton fervently embraced the cause of William and Mary; in fact, he was one of the “Immortal Seven” who invited William to invade England. In recognition of his support, he got to perform the ceremony of their coronation (normally, this duty falls to the Primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury, but the-then Archbishop refused to take the oath to the new monarchs, so he was “deprived of his office”, i.e., was kicked out). The new monarchs also restored Compton to all his old political positions. And so Compton lived out the remaining 24 years of his life holding high religious and political offices (although, to his bitter disappointment, his hopes to become the Archbishop Canterbury were twice dashed). He died in 1713 at the ripe old age of 81.

Throughout all this political ferment, Compton managed to maintain a 36-acre garden at Fulham Palace, the country home of the Bishops of London, which stood on the edges of the Thames River.

The building still exists. The garden also still exists, though much reduced, and is a lovely corner of London.

Compton was an avid plant collector and was the first in Britain to grow many imported species. Because his diocese included the American colonies, his focus was very much on North America. He used his parish priests and missionaries in the colonies to send home seeds. Among other North American plants, he was the first in Europe to grow the Virginia Magnolia

the jacaranda

and the catalpa.

But Compton also built up a large collection of the-then rare pelargoniums, including Pelargonium inquinans pictured above. He probably was able to do this because through his support for William and Mary he had built up a good network of contacts in the Netherlands – remember that it was the Dutch, first settlers in Cape Town, who had sent the first pelargonium species back to Europe.

The second important early cultivator of pelargoniums was Mary Capell, daughter of Sir Arthur Capell, 1st Baron Capell of Hadham, who through marriage became first Mary Seymour, Lady Beauchamp, and then, after her husband’s death and her remarriage, Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort. She was born two years before Henry Compton, in 1630. Here we have her with her sister Elizabeth – Mary is on the left of the painting.

Mary’s political vicissitudes started somewhat earlier than Henry Compton’s. Her father supported Charles I and lost his head for it, while her first husband, also a Royalist, was imprisoned. Her second husband successfully navigated the politically choppy waters of Cromwell’s Protectorate, during which he lost his titles, and ended up supporting the successful restoration of Charles II. The King eventually rewarded him with a Dukedom. He loyally supported James II but managed to avoid exile for this when William and Mary took the throne. He died in 1700 with his head still on his shoulders and none of his estates forfeited, which was pretty good going for a highly political man such as he. Mary was a loyal wife throughout all this, following him through all the twists and turns of his political fortunes and all the while bearing him six children. She survived her husband by fifteen years, dying in 1715 at the seriously old age of 84.

Mary began serious plant collection some ten years before her second husband died, and her interest in gardening intensified in her widowhood. She gradually accumulated one of the largest collections of exotic plants in England, with the support, it must be said, of some well-known gardeners. Through her aristocratic circles she traded and swapped in seeds (much like I did, in far less hallowed circles at primary school, in stamps). For instance, Compton sent specimens to his sister-in-law, Mary Compton, Countess of Dorset, who passed them on to Mary. But she also managed to have seeds sent to her from all the corners of Britain’s growing empire and trading interests: the West Indies, South Africa, India, Sri Lanka, China, Japan. In the specific case of pelargoniums, she too, like Compton, built up a large collection of them. She is credited with introducing into British gardens the other two pelargoniums of major interest which I mentioned above, Pelargonium zonale and Pelargonium peltatum. She did her plantings in the gardens of two houses owned by the Duke, Badminton House in Gloucestershire and Beaufort House in Chelsea. The Duke was rich enough and high enough in the aristocratic hierarchy to have Badminton House painted by Canaletto

although this more humble picture shows the all-important gardens as well as the house.

Badminton House still exists. Beaufort House does not. It was a large property in Chelsea, right on the Thames River – no doubt Mary could have gone to visit Henry’s garden by boat if she had wanted to (and maybe she did, for all I know).

Later urban developments wiped out the house and gardens, although Mary might be pleased to know that the Chelsea flower show takes place not too far from where she was – with the help of her gardeners – busily growing wondrous plants come from far and wide.

Well, while I have been whiling away my time researching this post, my wife has been busy and pulled out the dead cacti which started this post. We now have to decide what to put in the gaping holes which have been left. Not geraniums –  sorry, pelargoniums – dear! It’s too damp.

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Red “geraniums”: http://www.parkswholesaleplants.com/spring-plants/annuals-ai/geranium-zonal-americana-dark-red/
Geranium platypetalum: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geranium#/media/File:Geranium_platypetalum1.jpg
Cape Town 1790s: http://www.artvalue.com/auctionresult–english-school-18-united-kingd-view-of-cape-town-with-table-m-1538907.htm
Pelargonium inquinans: http://natureswow2.blogspot.it/2013/10/scarlet-pelargonium-pelargonium.html
Pelargonium zonale: http://www.africanbulbs.com/page67.html
Pelargonium peltatum: https://kumbulanursery.co.za/plants/pelargonium-peltatum
Ivy-leaf “geraniums”: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/226094843769770841/
Henry Compton: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Compton_(bishop)
Fulham Palace: http://www.fulhampalace.org/palace/history/
Fulham Palace Gardens: https://sequinsandcherryblossom.com/2016/05/15/five-fabulous-london-gardens-to-visit-this-spring/
Virginia Magnolia: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/413627547007792612/
Jacaranda: https://www.pinterest.com/royaljewel36/jacaranda-trees/
Catalpa: http://www.7arth.com/?product=50-%D8%A8%D8%B0%D9%88%D8%B1-%D8%B4%D8%AC%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%83%D8%AA%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A8%D8%A7
Mary and Elizabeth Capell: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Peter_Lely_portrait_of_Mary_and_Elizabeth_Capel.jpg
Badminton House by Canaletto: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Canaletto_-_Badminton_House,_Gloucestershire.jpg
Badminton House: https://landscapenotes.com/2015/10/31/book-review-a-natural-history-of-english-gardening-by-mark-laird/
Beaufort House: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/463518986626622713/