Charles Day is Wave Hill’s Ruth Rea Howell Senior Horticultural Interpreter.
There are many species of scented geranium, each with its own unique aroma, released whenever the foliage is lightly brushed. Besides being excellent plants for garden containers, they are grown commercially on a field scale for their aromatic oils, which are used as flavorings in foods and as fragrances for soaps and cosmetics.
Native to Southern Africa, and called pelargoniums by botanists, scented geraniums are distinguished from the related, cold-hardy cranesbills (Geranium spp.) by their flowers. Pelargoniums have two upper petals and three lower, usually of a different size or shape and sometimes of a slightly different color. The cranesbills usually have five, evenly-sized and uniformly-colored petals.
Pelargonium graveolens is known for its remarkable rose-like scent. It is often used as one of the parent species in the hybridizing new cultivars and, although they might be very different in appearance (and scent), many geranium oils will have “Pelargonium graveolens” listed on the label. Our plant in the Herb Garden is called the “true rose-scented” geranium, indicating that it is the original species.
Right next to it is the peppermint-scented pelargonium (P. tomentosum) with its large, velvety leaves. Located nearby are other pelargoniums, with scents ranging from nutmeg and apple, to lemon and even coconut.