How a passion for the Geraniaceae turned a collector into a nursery woman
by ROBIN PARER PHOTOGRAPHY by MARION BRENNER
ON BRIGHT SPRING MORNINGS, at my nursery, Geraniaceae, before the customers arrive, I wander around the plant tables, snipping the drooping flower stems of hardy geraniums. I go back to the house and cram them into water in an old stainless steel jug. At the end of the day, when we’ve finished work and the customers have gone home, I stop to look at them. They are my shorthand for a meadow. Artless, unforced, in bright but balanced colors of blue, magenta, pink, and white, they remind me that, first and foremost, they are wildflowers. I love them passionately for their simplicity. They will last only for a couple of days before the petals shatter and the leaves curl, but the thought of them in meadows and around forest edges, growing in bursts of brilliant colors, besieged by the bees and wasps drawn by the flowers’ intricate patterns of veins, is a dizzy vision of all that is beautiful about spring.
Nurseries are actually prosaic places. Toil, sweat, and sometimes boredom, punctuated by occasional bloodletting, are the norm. The nursery staff is stressed; the customers are sometimes trying. The hours are long and the work is hard, and no sooner do we sell the plants than we have to start all over again. We’re always tending the hidden yet bulging compost bin, endlessly propagating new plants, and sifting through a surprising amount of office work. Our demonstration garden is our guilty pleasure. (See sidebars for Robin’s design combinations.) Unpredictable weather, sieges of pests and diseases when least expected, and the unsettling reality, familiar to everyone working in retail sales, that if the customer wants it, it’s not in stock—all of these events are immutable. But it is all worth it for the passion we pursue.
A PASSION IS KINDLED
When moving from a small apartment to my current house in Kentfield, California, over 30 years ago, I brought with me 350 containers filled primarily with pelargoniums. This was the first real garden I’d ever had, and it was time to begin gardening in earnest. We had a tough start. The chilly winter of 1975 promptly froze all the plants I had so carefully hoarded. Depressed and discouraged, I accompanied a friend on a visit to a Sausalito nurseryman who offered a few hardy geraniums. Intrigued, I bought several, planted them in the garden, and was surprised to see how well they grew.
In 1981, a year-long move to England and a serendipitous friendship affirmed my love for the Geraniaceae. Dr. Peter Yeo, a taxonomist at the University Botanic Garden, Cambridge, introduced me to the wider world of hardy geraniums through the large collection he’d amassed there. With his encouragement, I joined the Geraniaceae Group in England—a great resource for all the geraniumophiles—and came home determined to grow everything I could find—and share them with others. In short order, I realized that North American gardeners were largely unfamiliar with charming hardy geraniums, and I set about to help change that.
THE GOOD, THE WEEDY, AND THE OVERDONE
Now, after countless and continued trips to the United Kingdom for new and different geraniums, the British Ministry of Agriculture inspector sometimes says, “What, you again? Haven’t you taken them all yet?” Well, not quite. There are always more. Alan Bremner, a very good hybridizer, keeps producing new and interesting plants. Bleddyn and Sue Wynn Jones, from Crug Farm Plants in Wales, who travel around the high places of the world hunting exciting plant species, have just collected G. alpicola with blue flowers from Guatemala. Oh, save me! But I’m not so far gone that I don’t have my likes and dislikes. Some plants, such as G. robertianum, are pernicious weeds. There are too many named geranium hybrids, and, certainly, too many angel pelargoniums that look almost identical. The plants we sell have to please me first. Selection rests with intuition about what looks good and has an interesting flower.
A FEW FAVORITES
A small nursery, specializing in a single family of plants with some very obscure members, needs to be creative in promoting its wares and selective in its offerings. We grow four of the generally recognized genera in the geranium family, but by no means the best-known species. We know nothing about zonals, regals, or ivies. We have built our collection over 30 years, gathering our plants from every source imaginable—friends, other nurseries, plant societies, seed exchanges, and field trips. Hardy geraniums are our first love. Among our favorites are the beautiful, large blue-flowered Geranium ‘Rozanne’, which is the best border geranium we’ve ever sold; the strange reddish pink G. phaeum ‘Rose Madder’; and G. sanguineum ‘Connie Hansen’, with its large, light pink, pale-centered flowers. We also grow scented-leaf pelargoniums such as Pelargonium ‘Aroma’, whose leaves smell of green apple, and the hairy, citrus-scented P. citrodorum. Of course I can’t resist the angel, pansy-face, and small-flowered pelargoniums such as P.‘Charmay Electo’, a neat little shrub with velvety, lilac-edged purple flowers, and P.‘Maria Garcia’, with flowers of orange red. We are spellbound by an increasing number of pelargonium species, including the bizarre P. schizopetalum, with its fringed pink-and-green petals, and the night-fragrant P. lobatum, with dinner plate-sized leaves and maroon and yellow-green flowers. A lesser-known relative of the hardy geranium is the erodium. Among the loveliest are silver-leaved Erodium x kolbianum ‘Natasha’, E. ‘Stephanie’ with white flowers and maroon and silver blotches, and E. ‘Cupidon’, with strong pink flowers with maroon blotches and carrot-like leaves. The best monsonia—another member of the family—is Monsonia speciosa, with its crumpled, tissue-paperlike, pink-centered white flowers.
IT TAKES ALL KINDS
Customers are one of the best parts about running a nursery. The dedicated collectors are a pleasure, not stopping until they have acquired everything in the catalog. There are customers in cold climates who only want herbaceous plants that flower in the winter when they are at home, defying both nature and common sense. The most delightful are the curious, willing-to-try-anything gardeners who openly love all plants and grow, admire, and study each acquisition. These are the customers for whom we really toil, whose delight matches our own, for whom we collect and propagate the hard-to-locate and the delicate obscurity—because these customers are ourselves.
The 25 Monsonia species are rarely cultivated, but deserve greater attention. They are herbaceous, often prostrate annuals or perennials, with thin, branching stems supporting leaves that are often strongly scented. Flowers appear in pairs and range from white to yellow, pink to blue and mauve. Monsonia are most frequently used as container plants, and need winter protection in cold climates. They are generally hardy to USDA Zone 10.
There are 60 species of Erodium and over 100 named forms and hybrids. There are three types: those with scalloped leaves; those with finely dissected leaves; and those with ragged leaflets attached to a central midrib. The first types do well in pots or in the ground, while the third grow best in perennial gardens. Flowers open sequentially, with intricate blotches and veins marking the upper petals. Most are hardy to Zone 7.
A COLORFUL FAMILY
The geranium family is at its most gorgeous in the California spring. The winter-growing pelargoniums from southern Africa are in full bloom; all the hardy geraniums are masses of pink, white, blue, and magenta; the erodiums are coated in little pink and white flowers with blotches on their upper petals like church window-panes; and the pelargoniums—those flossy ladies—are covered with pink and raspberry, maroon and red flowers, or with leaves that give off the scent of peppermint, strawberry, orange, canned pineapple, and much more. Who wouldn’t want to be in a nursery at such a time? H