Gardener's notebook: Colin Stewart on why geraniums are trending — is it down to the 'cottagecore' craze?

 (Handout)
(Handout)

Even if you are not a gardener, you’ll know what a pelargonium (aka geranium) is. Love them or not, there’s no escaping them, from the Royal Parks, where 12,000 scarlet pelargoniums are planted outside Buckingham Palace each summer, to windowsills.

Pelargoniums are an easy and reliable plant with a huge amount of diversity.

Personally, I’ve got a soft spot for the classic rose-scented pelargonium (P.graveolens) as I am custodian to the cutting of a plant that has been passed through five generations.

Someone else who is a little pelargonium mad is Colin Stewart, head gardener at Erith’s community-owned arts and craft space, The Exchange, where they have their own growing collection. He agrees with me that there is currently an uptick in their popularity right now. “I’m not sure if it’s cottagecore or maximalism, but they are definitely having a moment,” he says.

New leaf: it’s hoped The Exchange greenhouse will act as a pelargonium “library” (Handout)
New leaf: it’s hoped The Exchange greenhouse will act as a pelargonium “library” (Handout)

The pelargoniums at The Exchange are kept in a beautiful greenhouse, which was designed along with the garden by Sarah Price. “The greenhouse is designed to the exact dimensions of the first-ever purpose-built mobile library that was commissioned by Florence Barton-Young in the 1930s, when The Exchange was a public library,” Stewart explains.

“When I started at The Exchange the greenhouse was still empty. It’s not heated so it gets cold in winter. We were looking for something to grow that could survive the extremes of temperature, and not need watering every day in summer.”

These hardy plants can be grown from cuttings (Handout)
These hardy plants can be grown from cuttings (Handout)

Pelargoniums were the answer and also offer a living metaphor for the books that were in the mobile library. “There is a nostalgia to the collection of pelargoniums. Unlike the rest of the garden, they are labelled like a collection,” says Stuart.

The plants also lend themselves to the spirit of exchange. “Pelargoniums are so easy to take cuttings from,” he adds. “We hope the greenhouse becomes a library in its own sense, where people can share and exchange pelargonium cuttings from our shelves.”

Here are Stewart’s favourite Pelargoniums:

Pelargonium ‘Mr Wren’

“I love a classic scarlet zonal pelargonium. Last year I filled my window boxes with them and I thought the effect (especially with the red and white gingham wipe-clean tablecloth on my dining table in the window) was very breezy and chic, in a timeless holiday-ish way.

“‘Mr Wren’ is a Victorian variety, red but with the added distinction of a white border to the petals — very striking.”

Geraniums can come in bright red varieties (Handout)
Geraniums can come in bright red varieties (Handout)

Pelargonium ‘Surcouf’

“Another 19th-century favourite, this is a chunky, trailing, ivy-leafed variety, perfect for containers. Its bold flowers are a reallyjuicy, vibrant shade of cerise. Gorgeous.”

Pelargonium sidoides

“This feels like a common ‘gateway’ variety in terms of the species ones. It and has dainty, scalloped, grey foliage and even daintier, deep purple flowers on rangy stems.

“It seems to be fairly hardy and didn’t bat an eyelid over winter in my front garden in Peckham last year. I’m going to try it in the west-facing sand beds at The Exchange and see how it fares.”

The Exchange’s geraniums grow in a designer greenhouse (Handout)
The Exchange’s geraniums grow in a designer greenhouse (Handout)

Pelargonium tomentosum

“A vigorous, furry-leaved, mint scented species with delicate white flowers that, unusually, is very happy in shade. Again, it seems to be hardy in London and I’ve recently planted it out in some tricky dry, gloomy spots — so far so good.”

The Exchange, Erith, Bexley, DA8 1RA; theexchangeerith.com