When the average person hears the words "red geranium", he or she thinks of the bright red, large-headed bedding plants that fill window boxes, pots and backyard borders. Red geraniums are members of the large Geraniaceae family, but are not members of the geranium species, according to the International Geranium Society. They are instead members of another species, Pelargonium. In common usage in the United States, true geraniums are called "hardy geraniums" and pelargoniums are simply referred to as "geraniums."
Geranium versus Pelargonium
True geraniums are native to the northern hemisphere and are generally hardy in cold weather climates. They come in a variety of colors, including white, shades of pink to deep rose and shades of blue, mauve, blue purple and darkest purple. True geraniums do not produce true red flowers. Pelargoniums are descended from South African plants and are tender in cold weather climates. The most familiar pelargoniums are the red varieties, but the plants also bloom in shades of cream, pink, rose and orange.
Both geraniums and pelargoniums feature five-petaled flowers, but the most common pelargonium varieties' flowers are grouped into rounded flowerheads. True geranium flowers more often occur singly, rather than as parts of flowerheads. Some pelargonium and geranium varieties feature doubled flowers.
History of Pelargoniums
Pelargoniums, including the most common red bedding varieties, are known to botanists as Pelargonium x hortorum. The "x" in a botanical name always indicates a hybrid variety. They are descended from two species pelargoniums, both native to South Africa--Pelargonium inquinans and Pelargonium zonale. Both species arrived in the British Isles sometimes around 1700, having come by way of the Netherlands, which had commercial and colonial interests in South Africa, according to IGS. In the early 19th century, the French Empress, Josephine, cultivated at least 50 pelargonium varieties. In the 19th century, geraniums were often used in "carpet bedding" schemes that combined hundreds of colorful bedding plants in elaborate, patterned or carpet-like designs. This tradition continues on a much smaller scale today, especially in parks and commercial establishments.
Types of Plants
The most common red-flowered pelargonium is the "zonal" type, characterized by a full, rounded flowerhead and a dark ring or "zone" on each leaf. Within the "zonal" category are standard-size plants (that rise more than 7 inches above the rim of the pot), dwarf and miniature varieties. Some zonals are "fancy-leafed" varieties, because their leaves have rings or splashes of two or more colors. Ivy-leafed geraniums, whose long, drooping stems make them perfect for pots and hanging baskets, also sometimes have red flowers.
The traditional "language of flowers" ascribes specific meanings or emotions to various flowers. This tradition began in China and the Middle East centuries ago and reached its height in Victorian England. The language of flowers ascribes two meanings to scarlet geraniums: "comforting" and "stupidity."
Lovers of red (and other colors) pelargoniums can join geranium/pelargonium societies, like the International Geranium Society. These groups keep pelargonium lovers in touch, publicize the latest developments, sponsor shows, and provide information on pelargoniums and other members of the geranium family.