Scented Geranium (pelargonium spp. and hybrids)

The genus Pelargonium includes more than 200 species of annual, perennial, and subshrub plants commonly known as geraniums. The Pelargonium species and hybrids grown for their culinary, fragrant, and medicinal qualities are known as scented geraniums. Native to parts of Africa, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, scented geraniums have been cultivated for centuries, but they gained their greatest popularity during the mid-1800s.

The French discovered a way to substitute the oil from rose-scented geraniums for attar of roses in perfume making, introducing a popular commercial use for scented geraniums. Later, Victorian gardeners and herbalists used them in bouquets, potpourris, ointments, poultices, teas, desserts, and wines.

Popular species include rose-scented geranium (Pelargonium capitatum and other species, as well as hybrids), nutmeg-scented geranium (P. × fragrans), and lemon-scented geranium (P. crispum). The name of this genus comes from the Greek word pelargos, meaning stork, a reference to the beak-shaped fruits of scented geraniums.

Scented Geranium

Plant profile

Common Name: Scented Geranium

Description: Herbaceous perennial, up to 3 feet tall, with frilly, aromatic leaves — some velvety soft, others crisp; flowers in a variety of colors, usually in umbellate clusters of five sepals and petals

Hardiness: To Zone 10

Family: Geraniaceae

Flowering: Varies depending on variety

Parts Used: Leaves and flowers

Range/Habitat: Native to South America, naturalized in the Eastern Mediterranean region, India, Australia, and New Zealand; widely cultivated

Culinary use

Use scented geranium leaves to flavor teas, vinegars, breads, and desserts. Rose-scented geranium makes a flavorful jelly. To add subtle flavor to a cake, place scented geranium leaves flat on a buttered and floured pan just before pouring in the batter. Discard the leaves after removing the baked cake from the pan. To flavor sugar with geranium leaves, alternate layers of sugar and rose- or peppermint-scented geranium leaves in a jar, and set the jar in a sunny window. Remove the leaves after 2 weeks.

Medicinal use

Scented geraniums contain complex volatile oils with more than 2,000 components. The oils are extracted by steam distillation of the leaves, stems, and flowers. Geraniol, an antiseptic compound found in geranium oil, is commercially used in the manufacture of many high-quality perfumes.

In aromatherapy, essential oil of scented geranium, especially rose geranium, is used as an ingredient in facial creams and bath and massage oils. It is also used as an antidepressant and to help ensure restful sleep. It is particularly useful in skin care, for the treatment of conditions such as acne, burns, cuts, and wounds, and as a natural mosquito repellent. In South Africa, where many of the scented geraniums are native, the leaves have been used to treat diarrhea.

Caution: Do not use geranium oil if you are pregnant.

Ornamental use

Scented geraniums make lovely house and garden plants, filling the air with delightful scents when brushed. Many varieties also offer striking blossoms and foliage. Grow them where their aromatic leaves can be touched and enjoyed.

Other uses

As in the past, the dried leaves and flowers of scented geraniums make fragrant sachets and potpourris. Mildly astringent and stimulating, the leaves can be used for herbal facials and in baths. Certain scents are still used in the commercial perfume industry.

With bright blooms and fragrant foliage, pelargonium hybrids add charm to garden beds and containers.

With bright blooms and fragrant foliage, pelargonium hybrids add charm to garden beds and containers.

How to grow it

Scented geranium is a commonly grown aromatic garden plant that thrives in well-drained neutral to alkaline soil in full sun or partial shade. A tender perennial that requires minimum temperatures of 45° to 50°F, scented geranium can be grown year–round in a container moved indoors for the winter. Propagate by softwood cuttings. For maximum oil content, harvest the leaves just before the flowers begin to appear, preferably early on a dry, sunny day. Dry the leaves out of direct light to preserve their fragrance.