Red geraniums are among the most familiar flowering plants, flourishing on porches, in window boxes and garden beds all over the United States and elsewhere. Known to horticulturists by the Latin species name, Pelargonium x hortorum, the big, bright, red flowers are the result of many decades of hybridization. Both Pelargoniums and their hardy relatives, the "true" geraniums or cranesbills, are members of the larger Geraniaceae family. They have many meanings--cultural, literary and linguistic.
The most popular red geraniums are the so-called "zonals," which feature round flowerheads and leaves with faint or distinct "zones" or bands of contrasting color. The zonals are descended from two South African species, Pelargonium inquinans and Pelargoinum zonale, which arrived in England early in the eighteenth century, probably from the Netherlands. They have gone in and out of fashion ever since, but reached a high point during the Victorian period. Author Susan Condor quotes Victorian author W.J. May, who noted that in his era, scarlet varieties were so numerous that is was hard to tell them apart.
Origin of the Geranium's Name
"Geranium" comes from "geranos," the Greek word for "crane." This is a reference to the shape of the seed capsule, which resembles the head and long bill of a crane. "Pelargonium," the Latin name of the common red geranium and those of other hues, comes from the Greek word for "stork's bill." According to author Bobby J. Ward, pelargoniums are sometimes commonly known as "stork's bill." True hardy geraniums are called "crane's bill," and erodium, another member of the geranium clan, is known as "heron's bill."
The Language of Flowers
The language of flowers is an ancient tradition that assigns specific meanings or sentiments to different kinds of flowers. Originating in the Middle East and Asia, this "language" reached Europe in the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, Queen Victoria became intrigued by the language of flowers, which then became very fashionable. In the language of flowers, scarlet geraniums have a meaning that relates to either comfort or stupidity. However, the meaning assigned to any geranium, without reference to color, is more promising. These geraniums reflect gentility and esteem.
Geraniums in Literature
Many authors have used red geraniums in descriptions of domestic scenes. In Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women" (1868), one of the characters cultivates a red geranium. This is also true in E.M. Forster's "A Room With A View" (1908). In "To Kill a Mockingbird," (1960) Harper Lee uses the flowers as a symbol of civility and self-respect when she describes the red geraniums that one character, Mayella Ewell keeps, in jars outside the rundown Ewell homestead. Mayella is aspiring to a more genteel lifestyle in her choice of the flowers.
From Fashionable to Ubiquitous
Red geraniums have gone from being the height of fashion in Victorian times to being ubiquitous today. This is at least partly due to the fact that the modern seed-raised strains developed in the second half of the twentieth century produced bigger flowers, more predictable plants and variations in form, such as double flowers. Once new and improved varieties were introduced, commercial propagators began producing enormous numbers of identical new plants from cuttings.