During the merry month of May, the world moves deeper into spring. While daffodils and tulips bloom in the garden, most houseplants may not be flowering. That makes colorful pelargoniums (aka geraniums) a perfect choice for a May houseplant. This back-to-basics, easy-care houseplant offers a sense of stability and tradition in addition to its vivid blossoms and delightful fragrance.
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Geranium or Pelargonium?
There are geraniums, then there are geraniums. True geraniums grow in wild abundance in Europe. Pelargoniums were brought to Europe from South Africa in the 1800s and looked so much like geraniums that they were given the same name. Botonists soon determined they were not geraniums and put them in the genus Pelargonium, but by that time, the name had stuck. Some garden stores and most gardeners call them geraniums to this day.
Yet there are differences that make pelargonium a much better houseplant. These fragrant plants are happy indoors in containers where they can bloom nearly all year long, exuding their delightful fragrance. Save true geraniums for outdoors, but go ahead and fill that sunny window with containers or hanging baskets of pelargoniums.
Buying a Pelargonium
Pelargoniums aren't exotic plants. You are likely to find them sold in many garden centers. For example, Home Depot offers a wide selection from Costa Farms. Just be sure the label specifies pelargonium or "storksbill," a nickname stemming from the shape of the plant's seedpod. They are also sold as "annual geraniums" since they won't survive a frost outdoors. Another test is to sniff the flowers, since pelargonium blossoms are very fragrant.
If you can't find pelargoniums locally or you want a larger selection, online nurseries also offer them. The choices at Mountain Valley Growers are impressive. We like Mrs. Taylor scented geranium, for red flowers like classic geraniums with frilly leaves and a lovely, woodsy smell. Walmart's also sells pelargoniums both in their stores and online, although their larger plants are often limited to in-store purchases. Or check out the many choices of pelargoniums (sold as "container geraniums") at Lowe's.
Caring for Pelargonium
Pelargonium plants bloom only in sun, so you'll need to position your plant near a south or west facing window with maximum light. Given four to six hours a day of sunlight, these beauties can bloom almost the entire year. Be certain the soil is light and the pot drains well for your plant to thrive.
Water is critical to your plant's health, but wait for the soil to dry out a bit before pouring in more. Pelargoniums won't last long in soggy soil. Cut back on water in winter.
During the summer months when you are seeing active growth, feed your plants every two weeks with a water-soluble fertilizer at half strength. Once growth slows for winter, stop fertilizing.
While you don't have to do much pruning of a pelargonium houseplant, pinching back leggy stems will help create a bushier plant. And regular deadheading encourages new blossoms to grow.
From Alaska to California, from France's Basque Country to Mexico's Pacific Coast, Teo Spengler has dug the soil, planted seeds and helped trees, flowers and veggies thrive. A professional writer and consummate gardener, Spengler has written about home and garden for Gardening Know How, San Francisco Chronicle, Gardening Guide and Go Banking Rates. She earned a BA from U.C. Santa Cruz, a law degree from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall, and an MA and MFA from San Francisco State. She currently divides her life between San Francisco and southwestern France.