This well-known genus is centred in southern Africa, whence the most popular garden species of Pelargonium derive. However, the genus also has a single representative in the flora of New Zealand (as well as a smattering of species in Australia), far away from the great diversity of species that grace South Africa. Within gardening circles, pelargoniums are often erroneously called geraniums – a mistake that is somewhat understandable, as they are both members of the same family.
The most commonly planted pelargoniums are the brightly coloured hybrids that feature in so many older gardens of northern New Zealand, and the scented-leaved species/varieties that are frequently grown in herb gardens (such as Pelargonium graveolens). They have been cultivated in Europe since the early days of exploration within southern Africa.
The affinity between pelargoniums and geraniums is further reinforced by the meaning of their respective names. Pelargonium, which means ‘Stork’s Bill’ is derived from the Greek word (Pelargos) for stork, whilst Geranium, meaning ‘Crane’s Bill’, is derived from the Greek word for crane (Geranos). These names refer to a distinctive feature of the fruits, that is present on members of both genera.
In contrast with its showy African cousins, our native pelargonium is more likely to be appreciated for its bright green foliage than its miniscule flowers. It is a short-lived herb, that is best suited to a role as a gap filler within gardens of a naturalistic character. It is one of many pioneer species that occupy bare ground in a range of landscapes (over the full extent of the country’s main islands), whilst it also persists within grassland. As might be expected of a plant that frequents such habitats, it is tolerant of a wide range of conditions within the garden. In addition to inhabiting our shores, Pelargonium inodorum is native to eastern Australia.
Pelargonium inodorum forms low mounds of vivid green leaves up to 350mm, moving on to throw up a profusion of flowers from October through to the end of summer. As is stated above, the dimnutive scale of the flowers ensures that this is not, however, one of nature’s great flowering displays (although they are certainly deserving of close inspection). In late summer, plants produce large quantities of seed – an event that gives plants an untidy appearance. However, if old flowering stems are cut back to the base (once seed has been collected or broadcast, if desired), the attractive foliage of P. inodorum once again comes to the fore.