Pelargonium

2006 Herb of the Year

It was called the Age of Discovery, that exciting era when 15th century Portuguese navigator Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and the boundaries of the Old World were forever shattered. It was a time when the civilization of the Renaissance turned to exploration, when knowledge of the physical world became almost as important as the bounty it held. It opened the way for plant explorers — people like John Tradescant (circa 1570s to 1638), gardener to Charles I — to bring exotic botanics to the great glass houses of Britain, Spain, and France.

Tradescant introduced the first pelargonium (although it was thought to be a geranium at the time) to Britain early in the 17th century. Like all new plant species, Tradescant’s ‘Sweet Indian Storksbill’ (Geranium triste) delighted the eyes of the royalty and upper classes, but almost two centuries would pass before its cousins, the “scented geraniums” surprised and captured the imaginations and hearts of Queen Victoria’s genteel classes.

Pelargonium, scented geraniums as they are still commonly called, have the distinction of being “Herb of the  Year” in 2006 as selected by the International Herb Society. And the profound wonder and awe evoked by them would have been the same when first discovered as it is today. Witness a child’s face as she crushes a lush, velvet P. tomentosum leaf. See the surprise turn to sheer delight as the brushed leaf turns into a candy cane in front of her nose.

Most people still call them scented geraniums and it wasn’t until 1789 when French botanist Charles Louis L’Héritier de Brutelle differentiated between the genera Geranium and Pelargonium, and the pelargonium plants were recognized as separate from those of the geranium species. The name pelargonium comes from the Greek word pelargos, for stork, due to the fact that their seedpods are similar to the bird’s beak.

HISTORY AND USE

Native to the southern part of the African continent where they flourish in the warm, often dry climate, the genus Pelargonium embraces some 250 species, all with a wide range of diversity in leaf size, texture, pigmentation, and shape; size and growth habits of plants; colors of flowers; and leaf scents. Scented leaf pelargoniums are plants within the Geraniaceae family that exude a distinct scent resembling rose, lemon, citrus, mint, fruit, nut, pungent, or spice from their leaves, and sometimes, from their flowers as well.

In 1897 Charles Stevens, an Englishman suffering from tuberculosis, traveled to South Africa seeking a cure. He found umckaloabo (from the Zulu umKhulkane, meaning lung disorders, and uHlabo for chest pain), a decoction made from the roots of two scented leaf pelargoniums: P. sidoides and P. reniforme. Umckaloabo had been used for centuries by South African cultures to treat cough, upper respiratory tract irritations, and gastrointestinal disorders. Stevens returned to England with it and sold the remedy as “Steven’s Consumption Cure.” Today, modern research has proven the effectiveness of umckaloabo in treating acute bronchitis, and it is being used successfully for that purpose.

Even before Stevens began peddling his tonic cure, scented geraniums had swept England and the rest of Europe with their enchanting scents. Artists painted them, hostesses floated lemon-scented leaves in fingerbowls, housekeepers tossed them with fragrant herbs for both dry and wet potpourri, botanists experimented with hybrids, and cooks employed the revered leaves in jellies, sauces, cakes, and puddings.

Perhaps their most important commercial role developed in the mid-1800s when the price of rose oil used in the perfume trade rose to all-time highs and the French discovered that they could match it with essential oils distilled from various rose-scented pelargoniums. P. radens, P. graveolens, P. capitatum, and P. odoratissimum produce geraniol, linalol, and citronello essential oils that are used as a substitute for the more expensive rose oil.

In aromatherapy, rose-scented pelargonium oil (commonly called geranium oil) offers a balancing, stabilizing effect. In skin creams, its slightly astringent property opens and cleans pores while its scent evokes a sense of calm and tranquility.

PELARGONIUM VARIETIES

Of the over two hundred scented leaf pelargonium plants to discover, we present one favourite in each of the scent categories to get you started on your collection.

This robust, upright plant easily grows to two feet. Flowers are small and light mauve in colour, with dark markings on the upper petals. It is an excellent culinary pelargonium with a particularly lovely rose scent and absolutely no cinnamon overtone. Use it in the custard recipe below, or for flavouring sugar, flour, pound cake, or apple jelly.

A longtime favourite of growers because its reliable growth always brings satisfaction, this plant is also a hit with cooks due to its rosy-lemon perfume. The plant grows upright to a height of 20 to 24 inches, with many side branches forming a columnar type plant. The single flower is a light lavender colour.

An upright grower, P. Lime tends to become leggy unless it is pinched back. It has roundish leaves that are smooth with a crinkled edge. The flower is larger than most — pink with dark pink stippling on the upper two petals. It does well as a single potted plant, in a collection of potted pelargoniums or in the garden. It’s delightful lime scent is great in sauces, with fish, or in desserts.

Odoratus is the Latin word for fragrant — perfect to describe the sweetly scented apple to almost camphor-like fragrance of this plant’s leaves. P. odoratissimum grows from a central rosette with many small roundish, grey-green, crinkle-edged leaves. Profuse tiny, white flowers sit atop long stems, and the plant blooms almost constantly. The root is slightly tuberous. It is well-suited to a pot or hanging basket.

P. Peppermint Lace grows from 18 to 20 inches in a growing season. The grey-green, strongly mint-scented leaf is soft, velvety and deeply divided, giving it a dainty, lacy appearance. The flower is small and white. Use to flavor sugar, syrups, and sauces.

A slow-growing plant that typically reaches a height of 8 to 10 inches, P. Concolor Lace is easy to grow and its attractive, medium-sized, delicate lacy leaves and single rosy-red flower make it a very showy plant. It is often incorrectly labelled P. Filbert, a scent some people detect in the leaves. Because of its delicate nature, and slower growing habit, this plant works well for container gardens.

This very robust, lightly pungent or apricot-scented plant needs pinching to keep its shape. The leaves are dark green, smooth and deeply lobed. The flower is exceptionally pretty — large, dark cerise-pink with darker stippling on all petals, with a white center. Often sold in the US as P. Apricot, P. Paton’s Unique is the original English name, dating from 1870.

COOKING WITH SCENTED LEAF PELARGONIUMS

Their heady fragrances released at the slightest brush demand that you explore pelargonium leaves with your nose first, and then with your fingertips and tongue. The adventure is in discovering the tantalizing perfumes — sharply lemon, tartly fruity, exploding rose, or boldly spicy — that mimic the classic scents we love to experiment with in cooking.

Just as their scents are detected slightly differently by each person, so too are their tastes. We can only truly appreciate the bold statements or subtle suggestions of pelargonium essences in food by learning how we interpret the taste of each variety, and how that taste fits into favourite recipes. The reward in cooking with pelargoniums comes from an unexpected, intense burst of flavour, or the mysterious, and mildly exotic note that intrigues yet defies description.

GRILLED SALMON AND CITRUS GINGER SAUCE

Any of the lemon-scented pelargonium leaves — P. Frensham, P. Crispum, or P. Prince Rupert — are naturals for fish. This tangy sauce is very versatile. Use it with seafood, chicken, or pork, or drizzle it over ice cream, pound cake, or poached fruit.

Citrus Ginger Sauce

(Makes 1/2 cup)

3/4 cup orange juice

2 Tbsp finely chopped lemon, lime, or ginger-scented pelargonium leaves

1 Tbsp each: fresh lemon juice, honey and chopped candied ginger

2 tsp finely chopped rosemary leaves

2 tsp grated orange rind, optional

Salmon

(Makes 4 servings)

1-1/2 lb salmon steaks or fillets

1/2 cup Citrus Ginger Sauce (above)

In a large zip-top bag or bowl, combine all sauce ingredients. Add salmon, and allow to marinate for 15 to 20 minutes in the refrigerator.

Lift fish out of bag or bowl and grill on hot barbeque or under broiler for 7 minutes, or until flesh flakes easily with a fork and turns opaque.

Meanwhile, pour sauce into a small saucepan, bring to a boil over medium-high heat and simmer for 5-10 minutes until thickened.

For Ginger Sauce only: In a small saucepan, combine all sauce ingredients. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and simmer for 5-10 minutes until thickened.

LEMON CHICKEN

P. citronellum, P. Frensham, P. Lime, or P. Prince of Orange are all natural choices for chicken recipes. Tangy, with just the right amount of fresh flavor, serve this dish over stir-fried vegetables, rice or couscous. (Makes 4 servings.)

2 Tbsp olive oil

4 chicken breasts or 8 thighs (about 3 lb)

1 large red pepper, cored and sliced

2 green onions, sliced thin

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

1 can (10 oz) chicken broth

1/4 cup chopped dried apricots

2 Tbsp finely chopped lemon-scented pelargonium leaves

1 tsp grated lemon rind (optional)

Preheat oven to 350°F. In a 1-1/2 litre flameproof baking dish, heat oil over medium heat. Add chicken to the dish and brown on both sides. Reduce heat to medium-low and sprinkle pepper slices and onion over chicken.

Cover and cook for 3 to 5 minutes without turning chicken.

Meanwhile, combine lemon juice, chicken broth, apricots, lemon scented leaves, and lemon rind if using. Pour over chicken and vegetables.

Remove dish from heat, cover and bake in preheated oven for 35 minutes or until chicken is done.

FRAGRANT RICE

The coconut milk lends a slightly sweet and creamy element and is a perfect match for the rose-scented leaves; use vegetable or chicken broth if coconut milk is not available. (Makes 4 servings.)

1/2 cup water

1 can (14 oz) coconut milk

2 Tbsp finely chopped rose-scented pelargonium leaves

1/4 tsp salt

1 cup jasmine or other long-grain rice

In a medium saucepan, bring water and coconut milk to the boil over medium-high heat. Stir in pelargonium leaves, salt and rice.

Cover, reduce heat and simmer 25 minutes or until liquid is absorbed.

Remove from heat, let stand 5 minutes. Fluff  with a fork and serve immediately.

PEACHY BREAD PUDDING

Canned fruit are convenient, but fresh peaches, apricots, nectarines, strawberries, raspberries or cherries are exceptional in this dessert. It is perfect for brunch, a family meal dessert, and when served with blueberry sauce, a warm finish to a casual dinner with company. Rose-scented leaves impart an exotic perfume that blends nicely with the fruit. Lemon, and even mint-scented leaves may be used in smaller quantities. (Makes 4 to 6 servings.)

6 Tbsp unsalted butter, divided

1-1/2 cups milk

1/2 cup half-and-half cream

3 large eggs

1/4 cup chopped rose, or lemon-scented pelargonium leaves

1 can (14 oz) peach slices in fruit juice, drained, 1/4 cup liquid reserved

1/3 cup sugar

12 to 14 slices 3-day-old bread, cut in 1-inch cubes, (about 6 cups)

2 cups Blueberry Sauce (recipe follows), optional

2.5 litre baking dish, buttered using 1 Tbsp of the butter

In a medium saucepan, combine 5 Tbsp butter, milk and cream. Heat on medium, until bubbles appear around the edge of the pan. Remove from heat and cool.

Meanwhile, in a blender or food processor, blend eggs and pelargonium leaves. Add drained peach juice and sugar and process till blended. Stir egg mixture into milk.

In buttered dish, toss bread cubes with drained peaches. Pour milk mixture over and mix thoroughly. Let pudding sit for a minimum of 30 minutes or covered, overnight in the refrigerator. Bread will absorb most of the liquid.

Bring pudding to room temperature, preheat oven to 350°F. Place dish in a large baking pan, pour hot water into the pan to a depth of 2 to 3 inches. Bake until set, about 50 minutes.

BLUEBERRY SAUCE

Success with adding scented leaves to recipes comes down to the blends, experimenting with basic ingredients to learn how they can be smoothed, extended, piqued, or challenged. Here, the lemon in the leaves sharpens and draws out the blueberry flavour. Use with pancakes, cheesecakes, or iced desserts. Makes 2 cups.

1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp sugar

2 Tbsp chopped lemon-scented pelargonium leaves

2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries

1 cup water

1 Tbsp cornstarch

In a blender or food processor, blend 1/4 cup sugar and pelargonium leaves together, transfer to a small saucepan. Add blueberries and water, bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer gently for 5 minutes. Cool slightly.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine cornstarch with remaining 2 Tbsp.

In blender, purée blueberry mixture, then return to the pan. Stir cornstarch into blueberry purée and cook over medium heat, stirring until thickened, about 7 minutes. Store in a clean jar. Keeps up to 1 week in refrigerator.


References

Websites

http://www.pelargoniums.net/uspelsoc.html lists worldwide organizations, societies, clubs and UK nurseries

www.pelargoniums.net/uspelsoc.html lists the branches of the International Geranium Society (USA)

Plants

• Richters Herbs
www.richters.com
plants shipped worldwide, many scented varieties
Goodwood, Ontario, L0C 1A0
• Holt Geraniums
www.holtgeraniums.com
93 scented plants listed, articles, links
34465 Hallert Road, Abbotsford, B.C., V3G 1R3
• New Leaf Nurseries
www.newleafnurseries.com
plants, information, photos
P.O. Box 811, Vista, California, 92085-0811
• Papa Geno’s Herb Farm
http://www.papagenos.com
grow, ship 300+ herbs; 125 varieties of pelargoniums
6005 West Roca Road, Martell, NE, 68404, 402-794-0400
• Shady Hill Gardens
www.shadyhill.com
“The Geranium Specialists” – list 10 scented pelargoniums on the website
2 locations: 42W075, Route 38, Elburn, IL 60119
821 Walnut Street, Batavia, IL 60510

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