You probably don’t think about it much when you’re out in the garden, but plants have a history. In fact, each plant you put into your garden comes with a complex account of how it was discovered, named, exported and propagated. Knowing a bit about that history can help you become a better gardener.


Cranesbill brings a burst of soft spring and summer color to the native garden.

Photo Credit: John Speirs

Cranesbill in border

Use cranesbill (here found at the front of the photo) in a mixed border.

Photo Credit: John Speirs

The Geranium/Pelargonium story is just one of the many intriguing plant tales out there. While one genus is native to South Africa and the other to the more temperate regions of the world, both were collected by European botanists and naturalists, studied and given one botanical name: Geranium.

Now this is where the story starts to get complicated.

Generally what’s commonly called a “geranium” is technically now a Pelargonium – the geranium originating in South Africa. This distinction is important so you know what you’re looking at while browsing through a garden center or plant catalog. You’ll likely run into plants with the name “Pelargonium,” and they’ll probably look just like the annual geraniums you find at your local nursery each spring. (They’re usually treated as annuals because they’re not frost-hardy.)

The other geranium is what this article really focuses on – and you might come across it under the name “Geranium,” “cranesbill” or “wild geranium.” These beauties are from woodland areas in temperate regions around the world, and many of them are frost-hardy perennials.

Cranesbill is a wonderful plant for Northern gardens, and you can find it in a host of species with flower colors including burgundy, blue, royal purple, light pink and white. The pretty little blooms are usually held delicately above the plant’s lovely leaves. No matter the variety you choose, cranesbill adds a mounded splash of spring and summer color with very little maintenance.

The plant’s foliage itself is quite pretty, as well – resembling a small maple leaf. The leaves of some species even have different colors or neat patterns. And come fall, the foliage lights up with vivid autumn hues for a little extra depth to your garden just before winter.

Most cranesbill varieties adapt well to sunny regions of the garden, while others tolerate some shade. Be sure to read all the information on the plant tag to help you determine which selection is right for you and where to plant it. (Don’t forget to check the height and spread of each, too, as sizes range from variety to variety.)

If you’re in the market for a hardy groundcover to fill in the gaps of your perennial bed or small pocket garden, you might think about adding Geranium macrorrhizum. It grows about 8 inches tall, has pink flowers and spreads quickly in sunny, dry spots in USDA Hardiness zones 4-8. Some gardeners describe the leaves as having a “medicine chest” fragrance, but it must be pleasant enough because the plant’s oils are used in making perfumes. And you know a species is garden-worthy when it’s been around a long time – and this beauty is one of the oldest cranesbills of record. Its origins are from Eastern Europe, and it’s mentioned in documents as early as the late 16th century!

Got sun or shade issues? Try Geranium phaeum ‘Samobor’. Not only does this cranesbill do well under trees, it glows in full sun – as long as it’s given enough moisture. The plant’s pretty burgundy flowers bring early interest to woodland gardens. It’s hardy in zones 4-9 and grows 18 inches tall and wide. This beauty was discovered in 1990 and was named after the Croatian town of Samobor.

Lilac cranesbill, or Geranium himalayense, is a real winner, too. As its botanical name implies, the species is native to India and Tibet. Its gorgeous lilac-blue flowers have purple veins running through them – they’re definitely worth growing in the garden! A zone 4-8 plant, lilac cranesbill tolerates full sun in the cooler regions of the country and shade in warmer climates. It grows 18 tall and about 15 inches wide.

Another great shade-loving cranesbill is Geranium ‘Rozanne’. This long-blooming, heat-tolerant plant with deep blue flowers was named the 2008 Perennial Plant of the Year! Expect this beauty to reach about 20 inches tall and 30 inches wide. Use it in the garden or in containers in zones 5-8.

If you’re really looking for a native cranesbill, try Geranium maculatum. It’s found in the wild from Maine into Manitoba. This beauty’s got pretty pink flowers, and the plant can grow up to 14 inches tall. It grows in zones 3-9 in either full sun or light shade and likes its soil to be moist.

Whether you know these plants as Geranium or cranesbill, you’re sure to find a variety that’ll work for just about any spot in your garden. (And now you’ll even have an interesting story to talk about with garden center staffers as you pick out the cranesbill that’s just right for you!)