The term "scented-leaved geraniums" refers to a group of species within the Pelargonium genus that have leaves that emit a fragrance when touched or lightly bruised. These plants are within the large group we generally know as "garden geraniums" or "annual geraniums," which also includes ivy geraniums, zonal geraniums, and Martha Washington geraniums.
Common name notwithstanding, it's important to note that this entire group is different than the various cranesbill geraniums, or "true geraniums"—the plants that have the rightful claim to the name Geranium. The plants we know as garden geraniums were once part of that genus, but after they were separated into their own Pelargonium genus in 1789, the use of the common name persisted, right up to this day.
Scented-leaved geraniums (Pelargonium spp.) have glands at the base of their leaf hairs where the scented oil is formed. Crushing the leaves—or in some cases merely touching them—releases the oil and the scent. However, the leaves of scented geraniums closely resemble those of other garden pelargoniums, so you can't always tell the type of geranium just by looking. These plants have many leaf shapes, from round to finely cut and lacy, and leaf colors from gray-green to lime green.
Most scented geraniums have relatively small flowers; some are quite lovely, and some are so tiny you will barely notice them. Each flower has five petals, two larger upper petals, and three smaller lower petals.
Note that some people can develop contact dermatitis from handling scented-leaf geraniums, and the plants are toxic to cats, dogs, and horses.
|Common Names||Scented-leaved geraniums|
|Botanical Name||Pelargonium (scented-leaved group)|
|Plant Type||Tender perennial, annual|
|Mature Size||1 to 3 ft. tall, 1 to 2 ft. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full, partial|
|Soil Type||Loamy, well-drained|
|Soil pH||Acidic, neutral|
|Flower Color||White, pink, red|
|Hardiness Zones||10 to 11 (USDA); grown as an annual elsewhere|
|Native Area||Southern Africa|
|Toxicity||Toxic to pets, mildly toxic to people|
Scented-Leaved Geranium Care
Unlike most other types of pelargoniums, which are named for the color of their blooms, scented-leaf geraniums are typically named for their scent. There are dozens of varieties of these fragrant plants, but some of the most popular include chocolate, rose, cinnamon, mint, apple, and lemon. Although scented-leaved geraniums are technically tender perennials in USDA zones 10-11, they are most often grown as annuals.
To best enjoy their fragrance, plant scented geraniums where you will rub against them—along with a walkway or at an entrance. These are great plants for containers, filling out and spilling over the edges. Scented geraniums are especially nice in individual pots, clustered together.
Pelargoniums are fairly carefree plants that don't require much in the way of watering and feeding, although potted plants should be monitored for soil moisture. In colder climates, potted specimens can be brought indoors to either sit dormant in a cool, dark area or placed in a sunny window to grow as a houseplant. Some people dig the plants up entirely, hang them bare-rooted in a cool dark place, and replant in the spring. Not every plant will survive this treatment, but a surprising number do.
Like other garden pelargoniums, scented-leaved geraniums prefer full sun but will tolerate part shade. In very warm climates, some afternoon shade may be beneficial. Shadier conditions may produce leggy plants that require frequent pinching back to keep the plants full.
Soil should be well-draining, but not too rich. As with herbs and other plants grown for their essential oils, rich soil can lessen the strength of the fragrance. Scented geraniums will tolerate most soil pH, but a slightly acidic pH of about 5.8 to 6.3 is ideal.
Scented geraniums are drought tolerant and don't like sitting in wet soil. Water when the soil feels dry about an inch below the surface. Prolonged periods of dry soil will cause the leaves to turn yellow, then brown and fall off, but the plant will come back again with regular water.
Temperature and Humidity
These plants are perennial in tropical climates, so are well-suited for hot, humid conditions. Geraniums also do well in very dry climates. They may survive short periods of light frost but should be brought indoors or discarded when the weather turns cold in winter.
Go easy on the fertilizer. Scented geraniums are light feeders, and their scent will be stronger if they are grown on the lean side. Potted plants will need more fertilizer than plants in the ground, however. You can feed potted geraniums every three to four weeks through the spring and summer with an all-purpose fertilizer at half the label's recommended dilution. Do not fertilize at all during the winter.
Types of Scented-Leaved Geraniums
It is hard to find a scented geranium that doesn't smell lovely, but here are a few that stand out:
- Apple-scented (Pelargonium odoratissimum): Crisp apple scent and small white flowers; grows to 3 feet tall
- Chocolate mint (Pelargonium tomentosum): Yummy scent; round leaves have a dark center ring; grows 2 feet tall
- Mosquito plant (Pelargonium citrosa): A strong citronella scent, though not very effective as a mosquito deterrent; grows about 2 feet tall
- Variegated rose geranium( Pelargonium graveolens 'Variegata') Silver edged, lacy leaves with a rose scent
With around 200 varieties of scented-leaved geranium available, you might have a hard time narrowing down your choices and end up leaving the nursery with an armload of these fragrant plants.
Occasional pinching and light pruning will make your scented geranium plants more full and bushy. If your plant gets to be too large, don't be afraid to prune it back to maintain its shape. Spring is the best time to prune because this will give the plants time to set buds and flowers. But large plants can handle some cutting back during any season. Spent flowers should be deadheaded to stimulate new flower buds.
Propagating Scented-Leaved Geraniums
A handful of varieties can be started from seed, but most scented-leaf geraniums are hybrids and will need to be purchased as nursery plants. Small plants are often available in the herb section of nurseries and are usually affordable. You can also easily take root cuttings and make more plants. Here's how:
- Snip 6-inch long cuttings from growing stems and remove all but the uppermost leaves.
- Dip the cut end of the cutting in rooting hormone, then plant in a small container filled with moist vermiculite.
- Keep the vermiculite moist until a good network of roots develops, then transplant into the garden or into a pot filled with peat-based potting mix.
Note, however, that if your plant is a trademarked variety (and many are), it is not legal to propagate the plant by any method.
How to Grow Scented-Leaved Geraniums From Seed
If you'd like to grow your own scented-leaved geraniums from seed, it's best to start indoors in December. Spread the seeds across a tray filled with seed-starting medium, and then cover them with soil to a depth of 1/8 inch. Mist the soil to moisten it, but take care not to leave it soggy. Place the tray in a warm, light spot, and mist regularly to keep the soil moist. The seeds typically germinate in around 3 weeks.
Continue to keep the seedlings in a light, warm location, and mist them regularly to prevent the soil from drying out. If necessary, thin the seedlings so each has a clear area around it. Once the danger of frost is past, you can plant the seedlings outside in your garden, either in a pot or in the ground.
Potting and Repotting Scented-Leaved Geraniums
Scented-leaved geraniums are generally purchased as small nursery plants but grow quite quickly. Plant them in containers filled with a peat-based potting mix. They make lovely additions to a hanging basket or grow several varieties in one large container. You can also grow each plant in its own separate pot. Whatever you choose, geraniums prefer slightly acidic soil. Full sun generally provides the best flowering, but they will tolerate part shade.
These plants like to be slightly rootbound, so if moving your scented-leaf geranium to a larger pot, only increase the pot size by one inch across and deep. As a general rule, an 8-inch pot is a good size for an average-sized scented-leaf geranium.
While many gardeners treat these tender perennials as annuals, disposing of them once the chill of winter kills them off, some people have success in maintaining their potted scented-leaved geraniums over the winter, generally by bringing them indoors and treating them like a houseplant until the following spring. If you try this, be sure the plant gets plenty of bright light. It may get leggy in too much shade. If that happens, you can prune lightly to create a bushier plant.
Although success varies, you can also place potted geraniums in a cool, dark space for the winter, allowing them to go dormant in the pots. Trim back the plants by one-half and water deeply before storing them. Through the winter, water lightly every so often to prevent the soil from completely drying out. In the spring, bring the potted plants back outside and water deeply. But don't be surprised if some plants fail to return from dormancy.
How to Get Scented-Leaved Geraniums to Bloom
While grown primarily for their fragrance, scented-leaved geraniums do produce pretty flowers in late spring through the summer. Generally, as long as your plant is receiving enough sunlight and water, you'll be rewarded with a flush of small blossoms in pink, white, or red, depending on the variety. To keep the flowers coming, deadhead spent blooms by pinching or snipping them off the plant. Perhaps surprisingly, the flowers don't have a fragrance; these plants are only scented by the oils in their leaves.
Common Problems With Scented-Leaved Geraniums
Generally, you won't have much trouble with scented-leaved geraniums, but like any plant, they can have their issues.
One of the most common issues with scented-leaved geraniums is leggy growth, meaning long spindly stems without a lot of leaves. This is usually caused by insufficient sunlight. If your plant is in a pot, move it to a location where it will receive at least six hours of sunlight each day. In the hottest areas, morning sun is best to prevent scorch.
Leaves Turning Yellow
There are several reasons why your plant might have yellowing leaves, but one of the most common is overwatering. Scented-leaved geraniums are somewhat drought tolerant, and prefer to go a bit dry between waterings. If your plant starts yellowing, cut back on the water and be sure that the soil is dry at least an inch down from the top before watering again.
Leaves Falling Off
It's normal for a plant to lose aging leaves, but if your scented-leaved geranium starts dropping even newer leaves—especially if the leaves are yellowed or mushy—then once again, overwatering is the likeliest explanation. Once a plant is actively losing leaves, it is sometimes hard to save it, as the roots are beginning to rot. However, by cutting back on water, replacing some of the soggy soil with fresh soil, and trimming away any blackened or mushy roots, you can sometimes rescue your plant.
How long do scented-leaved geraniums live?
Although these plants can live for years in their native South Africa, they rarely survive that long elsewhere. In mild-winter climates, or when grown as a houseplant, your scented-leaved geranium might live for several years. However, in cold-winter climates, the plant will die once frost sets in. Most gardeners treat these plants as annuals.
Are scented-leaved geraniums good for hanging baskets?
Absolutely! Many varieties have a trailing habit, and look wonderful spilling over the edge of a hanging basket. Plant the geraniums on their own, or mix them with other trailing annuals, such as verbena or portulaca. Remember that plants in hanging baskets often require more water than potted plants on the ground, as well as protection from high winds.
Can I use scented-leaved geraniums to make potpourri?
You can continue to enjoy the wonderful fragrance of your plants by clipping off healthy leaves, storing them in a paper bag for a week or so until they are completely dry, and then crumbling them into a mix with other dried flower petals. This creates a very fragrant potpourri that can be used to fill sachets or displayed in a bowl.