Pelargoniums: a pedant’s prayer

Bee in bonnet warning!


They say that nothing in life is certain, except death and taxes. But I would add something else; that long after die  people will still call pelargoniums geraniums. Does this matter?

Well I think it does. Apart from being a pedant – and I am happy to admit it – geraniums and pelargoniums are very different plants. One is hardy, one is not, one is herbaceous and one is a shrub. They have different colours and different uses. They are in the same family but then so are tomatoes and deadly nightshade.

What is worse is that if you try to use the correct name for a pelargonium you are regarded as trying to be clever, at best, and will probably be accused of trying to be confusing. And the irony is that nothing could be further than the truth. I want to use the correct name because it is what they are!

At present, if I work in a garden centre and someone walks in and asks for some geraniums, I have no idea what they want. Is it a bright red thing to put into a pot for summer colour? Or is it a hardy herbaceous plant that can be planted and will happily bloom for months and grow as effective ground cover for years to come. So the first thing I have to ask is what they are going to do with it or what colour they are looking for. We live in an era of bullying and mob rule with an obsession for dumbing down but is the word pelargonium really more difficult to cope with than geranium?

This is not new. I once worked for an editor who insisted on making up common names for plants and ruled that we could not call Regal pelargoniums Regal pelargoniums but call them Royal Geraniums. Making up common names because you think people can’t cope with their real names is not just daft, it shows no respect for other people.

This is not a new problem, as the books shown above illustrate. Both books deal with pelargoniums. Yet their titles ‘say’ they are about geraniums. Fortunately, both also have photos of the plants they are written about, as though to cover all bases. In ‘Miniature and Dwarf Geraniums’ (1988) Harold Bagust is unapologetic about the title, criticising the fact that the British Geranium Society changed its name to the British Pelargonium and Geranium Society ‘against the wishes of most of its members’. He relates how membership then decreased. He also illustrates the absurdity of the whole situation where the Australian Geranium Society is the International Registration Authority for Pelargoniums! I think it is high time to start using pelargonium for pelargoniums. Is it really too much to ask?

The troubles all start with two birds: cranes and storks, though herons are also involved. For some reason, someone thought that the seed clusters of geraniums look like cranes’ beaks and those of pelargoniums like storks’ (we won’t mention that erodiums are like herons’).

Pelargoniums were first described, and named, in 1732 by Dillenius. But the father of botanical names, who recognised the uniformity of sexual parts in related plants and is generally lauded, made a big boo boo in 1753 and lumped the then known pelargoniums with geraniums and erodiums and called them all geraniums. Because of his status no one dared argue for a while but Charles l’Heritier finally got it right in about 1793 and split off pelargoniums. So we have known that pelargoniums are NOT geraniums for more than 200 years. Isn’t it time to try to get it right?


But aren’t they the same?

NO, NO no.

Ignoring whether the seed heads look like storks, cranes or Anne Widdicombe, the plants are very different. Can you spot which is which above?

Pelargoniums have flowers that are zygomorphic – hang on, come back, that just means that the flowers have one plane of symmetry. If you draw a line across the flower, the two halves will not look the same except for one line, that runs from top to bottom. This is because the flowers have two upper petals that are different from the lower three. Even in the most highly bred bedding pelargonium there is usually a vestige of this pattern. In addition, the flowers can be scarlet, pink, white or mauve but NEVER blue. Of course there are lots of classes of pelargonium. The most common are zonal pelargoniums, named because of the dark ring in the leaf, frequently bred out of common cultivars. Then there are regals, ivy-leaved and scented – and more. Pelargoniums are generally frost-tender shrubs and most come from South Africa.


In contrast, geraniums have flowers that are actinomorphic, meaning that the flowers have many planes of symmetry. They can be divided into two identical parts with ten lines. The petals are all the same. Most are herbaceous though some are woody at the base, and the flowers can be white, pink, purple or blue but NEVER true red.

Does it matter? I think it does. Why keep on perpetuating something that is wrong and far more confusing and useful than the truth? I just hope that one day people will fill their window boxes with pelargoniums and not geraniums.




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4 Comments on “Pelargoniums: a pedant’s prayer”

  1. Meriel
    August 9, 2019 at 10:45 am #

    Hear, hear. Used to drive me mad when I worked in retail.

  2. tonytomeo
    August 12, 2019 at 6:39 am #

    Until recently, I did not mind that others new pelargoniums as geraniums, just because geraniums were so rare here. Besides, we knew geraniums as cranesbill. Now that geraniums/cranesbill are more popular, there might be more potential for confusion. It annoys me more that Pelargonium domesticum is known as ‘Martha Washington’. That just makes no sense.

    • thebikinggardener
      August 14, 2019 at 1:30 pm #

      Yes, P. domesticum is Regal pelargoniums here and Martha Washingtons there. All very confusing!

      • tonytomeo
        August 16, 2019 at 4:30 am #

        Oh, of course. That makes sense, because it at least describes it as a ‘pelargonium’. (Regal is a Buick here.)

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