Are you a garden snob? Campaign encourages people to grow 'vulgar' geraniums

Marie Claire Dorking
·7 min read
Is it time to rethink geraniums? (Getty Images)
Is it time to rethink geraniums? (Getty Images)

You may think that all gardens are beautiful, but it seems not all flowers are created equal – and floral snobbery is alive and kicking in the UK, with some unfortunate blooms relegated to the potting bench for being "common".

Case in point – the humble geranium, specifically the red flowers, which were recently described by society arbiter Nicky Haslam as "vulgar" in a scathing list of the things he finds most common.

"They're alright in Austria or on Capri, but not in the gardens of England," the 81-year-old said. "They are planted in rows in Buckingham Palace and look terrible. White and pink ones are fine, though."

Thankfully, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex don't agree, having chosen the white 'Mayflower' geraniums for their wedding in 2018.

But despite getting the royal seal of approval, it's difficult to ignore the geranium's fusty rep. 

Read more: 'Vegetable King’, 72, whose oversized produce went viral, shares advice for novice gardeners

Geraniums are trying to shake off their fusty reputation, thanks to a new marketing campaign. (Getty Images)
Geraniums are trying to shake off their fusty reputation, thanks to a new marketing campaign. (Getty Images)

The humble plants have been on the receiving end of snobbery for years, dismissed as unfashionable, old-fashioned and only fit for your grandparents' garden.  

But the geraniums are fighting back, having been given a major publicity boost in a bid to win over younger gardeners. 

The marketing campaign is led by Pelargonium for Europe (PfE), with the aim of promoting geranium sales in Europe and encouraging a new generation of geranium fans. 

“Pelargoniums (geraniums) have been the mainstay of British gardens for as long as we can remember, but in recent years their popularity has waned as gardeners have turned to what they perceive to be more exotic, modern blooms or moved to a more neutral colour palette," explains Dr Suzanne Lux, who heads up PfE across Europe.

"However, we’re making it our mission to showcase the glory of these vintage blooms, and to highlight the ease of care, incredible variety of colours and types (did you know that pelargoniums come in trailing, scented and fancy-leaved to name but a few?) and showcase how versatile they can be in everything from a traditional garden to contemporary urban spaces."

And in fact, they are more complicated than we may think. 

"Geranium' is the name most people use when talking about Pelargoniums," she explains. "But Geranium is the same family but actually a different plant genus, so to help avoid confusion some refer to Geranium as 'hardy geraniums', and Pelargonium as 'tender geraniums'."

Dr Lux says that though they love the traditional plants, such as the ones adorning Buckingham Palace, they also want people to learn more about the other types of pelargoniums and to start adding them to their gardens and home (yes, pelargoniums can also be housed inside!).

"From bright pinks to pillar box reds, to delicate creams and tiny pink flowers, it’s time for people to shed their preconceptions of pelargoniums and dig deeper into this gorgeous plant. You might be surprised by what you find!”

Read more: The weeds you need to remove from your garden right now

Heather Godard-Key, gardening expert at Fibrex, says she welcomes any campaign that raises the profile of the genus and believes the "old-fashioned" reputation of pelargoniums may in part stem from a lack of education. 

"A geranium is a hardy perennial, a pelargonium is not. If you go to a garden centre and ask for a geranium you will probably end up with a bedding plant, but you may well have wanted to come home with a herbaceous perennial. So it's important to get that right." 

As for pelargoniums being described as a "poor man's rose," Godard-Key respectfully disagrees.

"There is infinitely more variety than in the rose genus," she explains. "They are much easier to grow and give a show-stopping abundance of colour from May through to the first frosts in the autumn or early winter."

Other benefits of the bloom include its versatility. Some varieties, such as the scented leaf, can be used as you would a herb, to flavour dishes and drinks. 

Watch: How to grow your own tomatoes. 

While she hasn't personally heard of the flowers being described as "Nanna's flowers," she anticipates it comes from childhood memories of their grandmothers' geraniums, the fragrance from the leaves and the memories that evokes.

"I would say that simply proves the plants' long lasting popularity. They as popular now as they were in my grandparents' time, only now there is infinitely more choice," she adds. 

While the Royal Horticultural Society is not involved in the campaign, they are pleased that efforts are being made to popularise the plant. 

"There are a huge range of pelargoniums – most of them very easy to grow and others very tricky, although all are rewarding," says Guy Barter, chief horticulturalist at the RHS. 

"Pelargoniums are drought-resistant as well as colourful, often with attractive leaf markings, and therefore great choices for pots and hanging baskets even in the brightest places, and they do markedly little environmental harm. 

"My personal favourites are the scented-leaved pelargoniums with delicate flowers and fabulously scented foliage - apple, citrus, fruity, mint and aromatic - they are fascinating plants."

Read more: As birdwatching soars during lockdown, here’s everything you need to spot them in your garden

Gardener Gabby Woodward, 23, who runs an urban gardening Instagram page is certainly a convert. 

"One of the best things about being a young gardener is that I can take a fresh approach to planting, irrespective of past perceptions," she explains. 

"Whilst I’m aware of some of these past criticisms, perhaps more than most young gardeners due to my horticultural nerd-iness, I have never considered a plant ‘old-fashioned’ – if I think it's right for my border or container displays, I plant it!

"In my view, younger gardeners can often be the cause of a resurgence of popularity."

Woodward says decades of confusion between pelargoniums and geraniums hasn’t helped the limited outlook and conflicting views. 

"Bedding Geraniums, or pelargoniums, are one of the most versatile plants and are separate (despite also being in the Geraniaceae family) to ‘cranesbills’ geraniums," she explains.

"Pelargoniums can be brought inside and continue to flower in pots during the winter months, filling a windowsill with colour.

"There are over 2,500 types of pelargoniums to pick from, but the scented ones are my favourite. Varieties such as the gorgeous 'Deerwood Lavender Lass' and 'Attar of Roses' are fabulous in containers and can be cut to use in flower arrangement."

There is much confusion about geraniums, actually called pelargoniums. (Getty Images)
There is much confusion about geraniums, actually called pelargoniums. (Getty Images)

As well as being beautiful to look at, according to pelargonium advocates, geraniums are exceptionally beneficial to the nervous system, and can significantly reduce stress and anxiety.

"Along with their natural beauty, [geraniums] actually have a whole host of health benefits, especially in oil form," explains Georgie Matthews, gardening expert at Rhino Greenhouses Direct.

Matthews says geranium oils can help to ease stress symptoms thanks to their relaxation properties, which balances the autonomic nervous system.

"Geranium oils help to transmit signals to a region of the brain known as the limbic system, which helps to reduce respiration rate, lowers blood pressure and heart rate, whilst also acting as an antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory," she adds.

As well as geraniums, Woodward says the dahlia is another misunderstood variety of plant. 

"Its history of snobbery amazes me when compared to its current popularity," she says. "If you take one look at the gardening world on social channels such as Instagram, in your first 10 minutes of scrolling I can almost guarantee you will come across photos of dahlias. 

"Young people are mad for them, and like bedding geraniums there are so many different types that it’s almost impossible to wrap them into one universal perception."

Other 'Nanna' plants that deserve a second look

Liam Lapping from Flowercard has put together some suggestions for other plants that have an unfair reputation for being old-fashioned. 

  • Hydrangeas, making a popular comeback, florists are using these in bouquets

  • Dahlias, often seen as fussy plants but have a long flowering season

  • Roses, again, seen as fussy and old, but these perennials provide year round blooms and make the most beautiful cuttings

  • Lavender will grow back year in year out and smells amazing throughout the summer

  • Begonias make great indoor and outdoor additions to your home and garden - Begoniamaculata has beautiful spotted foliage and white flowers

Watch: Gardening hacks you need to try now.