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Thursday, May 11, 2006 02:42 pm

The great pretender

Hooray for scented geraniums — the herb of the year!

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Name a fragrance — rose, lemon, orange, lime, strawberry, peppermint, nutmeg, apple, apricot, coconut, even camphor — and there’s probably a geranium carrying that scent. Fragrant, easy to grow, and lovely to look at, scented geraniums have been proclaimed the 2006 Herb of the Year by the International Herb Association, but they’ve been a garden favorite for centuries. These geraniums — native to South Africa but introduced into Europe in the early 1600s — are noted for their great variety of leaf shapes, textures, and patterns and, of course, their aroma, which may be released by light rubbing of the leaves or even a breeze or rain. Some have attractive blossoms, but the flowers of most varieties, which grow in clusters and range from white to pink or lilac, have little visual impact. Scented geraniums are effective as ornamentals in the landscape, grouped in containers, or shaped into topiaries. Although scented geraniums are considered perennials, in most of the United States they are grown as annuals. Most varieties are fairly easy to grow and will survive in less-than-optimal conditions. Plants generally perform their best in full sun, but during a hot, dry summer they will fare better with full morning sun and filtered afternoon sun. Scented geraniums prefer a well-drained, evenly moist, garden soil with ample organic matter and good air circulation. Plants that are not pruned tend to grow long, “leggy” single stems. As soon as a stem has at least five nodes or is 4 to 6 inches long, cut or pinch the growing tip. This “haircut” will promote the growth of a bushier, more compact plant. Inspect plants regularly to identify insect or disease problems. Scented geraniums vary in their susceptibility to white flies, aphids, mealybugs, and spider mites. Small infestations of these insects can be controlled with the use of a strong spray of water (which dislodges the insects) or insecticidal soap. The leaves of scented geraniums are ideal for potpourri, and some varieties are used in food. Lemon-, lime-, rose-, apple-, and mint-scented species are most commonly used in sweet dishes such as jellies, punches, cookies, cakes, muffins, teas, and ice creams. Generally the leaves are added to a dish so that the flavor may be infused and then removed before serving. Fresh leaves may also be used as a decorative garnish.
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