Xmera / Garden History / Plants: Pelargoniums

The Early History of the Pelargonium in England

The first pelargonium species recorded in England was Pel. triste, which flowered in John Tradescant's garden in Lambeth in 1632. It was described in Gerard's Herball (1633) as having flowers consisting of 'five round pointed leaves, of a yellowish colour, with a large blacke purple spot in the middle of each leafe, as if it were painted, which gives the floure a great deal of beauty; and it also hath a good smell'. It was thought to be related to the native hardy geranium, which had evolved a similar method of seed dispersal and to have come from India, so was named Geranium Indicum odoratum flore maculato.

Other species gradually arrived during the 17th and 18th centuries. Pel. capitatum was listed as in the Royal Gardens in 1690. Attar of Roses is a form of this and was available for sale from Wheeler's of Gloucester in 1786 at 7s 6d a plant - the same price as 3 bare rooted pear saplings.

In 1782 John Kingston Galpine, Nurseryman & Seedsman of Blandford Forum, advertised 14 pelargoniums in his Catalogue of the most Useful & Ornamental Hardy Trees, Shrubs, Plants, &c. Of these 12 were straightforward species, such as peltatum, capitatum and vitifolium. In addition to Pel. zonale, he also offered a silver and a gold variegated version. All the species listed by Galpine had arrived in England by the 1730s, being recorded in the royal gardens, at Chelsea or elsewhere. Pel. zonale and peltatum were first recorded in the collection of the Duchess of Beaufort. The newest introductions sent to Kew from the Cape by their plant collector Francis Masson from 1774 took time to reach the nursery trade.

In 1783 James Colvill founded a nursery in the King's Road, Chelsea, which became known for exotic and newly introduced plants. Under his son - also James - the nursery became famous for hybridization. The garden writer J.C. Loudon reckoned that the best collection of pelargoniums was at Colvill's nursery, where it was under the care of Robert Sweet (nursery foreman from 1819 to 1826). In 1820 Robert Sweet started publishing his Geraniaceae: The Natural Order of Gerania in monthly parts, which were later collected together in book form. By this time there were innumerable primary hybrids available to the keen grower. Many had occurred without deliberate crossing, so the parentage was uncertain. In other cases nurserymen wanted to keep the crosses secret. Many were named after the nurseryman or for prominent people: e.g. the Duchess of Gloucester's Geranium, whose pink petals lost their colour when soaked in water and was hence formally labelled Pel. solubile.

Sweet was the half-brother of the Sweet's involved in Sweet & Miller's nursery, Bristol. He wrote of a plant he knew as Pel. tricuspidatum: 'we do not recollect having seen [it] about London, but have seen it in the Marquis of Bath's collection at Longleat, and at Sweet's and Miller's nursery, Bristol'. In 1826 John Miller published a catalogue for his Bristol nursery. This included a separate section of Geraniaceae, which included over 300 pelargoniums (species and hybrids), of which two-thirds were illustrated in Sweet's work. By comparison John Cree of Chertsey, Surrey listed 130 varieties in his 1829 catalogue.

'The English florists have become celebrated for their collections of a vast variety of green-house geraniums...which certainly does include a set of flowers of unrivalled beauty. The plant is, among English florists, what the tulip and hyacinth are with the Dutch: they spare no expense in erecting propagation-houses and conservatories for it, they have shows of it, they give a high-sounding name to every new variety'.

William Cobbett, The English Gardener (1833).

Pelargonium classes were included in the shows of the newly formed horticultural societies. In 1828 the inaugural show of the Gloucester Horticultural Society included pelargoniums, with J.C. Wheeler, the nurseryman, winning first prize with one called Maid of Orleans - which was among those listed by John Miller. 4th prize at Gloucester went to J.D. Wheeler with Pel. macranthon, also available from Miller. This was described by Cree as 'white and stripes', while Sweet thought it the 'largest-flowered kind' yet produced. The flower was white with maroon/purple markings on the two upper petals. It had been raised by seed by Robert Jenkinson of Fulham, a cousin of Lord Liverpool. (Lord Liverpool also had an important collection at Chislehurst, Kent.) Jenkinson's gardener went on to cross macranthon with a plant with small dark flowers to produce a plant that was known as Pel. De Vere.

At the Bristol Horticultural Society in 1830/1831 the classes were based on colour: light, dark, purple, red. Macranthon was a consistent favourite in the light class. Another light flower, though in this case pink rather than white, was Pel. formosum, which was bred at Colvill's, but even Sweet wasn't sure of its parentage. He described it as 'a hardy free grower and an abundant bloomer' with a long season. Also popular was Pel. hillianum, raised from seed by Messrs Colley & Hill of Hammersmith. This had pure white flowers with a purple mark in the centre. De Vere featured among the reds. Another red pelargonium produced by Jenkinson's gardener was Nairnii, which Sweet reported was also sold as Anne Boleyn.

A popular dark flower was Pel. daveyanum, raised by the Camberwell nurseryman Thomas Davey, who was rumoured to have made £1,000 from the plant. According to Sweet this was a free grower and abundant flowerer, a cross between Pel. ignescens (an 18th century hybrid still available from Fibrex) and Pel. barringtonii, a plant of unknown parentage, recommended by Loudon as comparatively hardy: 'will live through the winter at the bottom of a wall, if the soil be kept quite dry'). A Victorian amateur grower recorded the 'great sensation' it made 'in the floricultural world of London', but criticised its poor shape and insubstantial flowers.

Pel. moreanum, which was produced by a nurseryman called More in the King's Road, Chelsea and sold as Victory. This too was shown at Bristol. The Victorian grower described it as 'this was in shape and quality, much on a par with the Daveyanum, but in color it approached a scarlet, and possessed a good compact habit, and an elegantly shaped leaf, much like the common rose scented geranium'. Another dark flower was Pel. malachraefolium, raised by Mr Dennis at his nursery in Grosvenor Row, Chelsea. This one struck easily from cuttings according to Sweet, which no doubt helped its popularity.

In 1824 Robert Sweet was prosecuted for allegedly stealing plants from Kew. Although he was acquitted, his health and career were damaged. He left Colvill's nursery in 1826 and died in 1835.

John Miller resigned as secretary of Bristol Horticultural Society in 1833 owing to financial problems. By 1836 he was bankrupt and the running of nursery passed to his foreman Joseph Garraway.

Georgian growers had concentrated on cucullatum and fulgidum hybrids, introducing many other species into the mix, but doing little with zonale, inquinas or peltatum. During Victoria's reign florists sought ever rounder flowers, the mania for bedding led to an emphasis on compact plants, contrast, and leaf colour. Pel. zonale became the basis of many bedding pelargoniums, which were the main interest of commercial growers.

The old varieties remained popular as pot plants and they continued to appear at shows, but were slipping down the social scale. No longer the preserve of thosewho could afford greenhouses and conservatories, 'geraniums' grown as window-sill plants became a staple of cottager/artisan classes in local flower shows in the second half of the 19th century.