From the Cape of Good Hope around the world – Triumphant advance of the pelargonium

Pelargoniums, more commonly known as geraniums, can be seen everywhere in summer. With their bountiful blooms these easy-care beauties effortlessly transform balconies, terraces, gardens and parks into luminous oceans of colour adorn balconies, flowerbeds and terraces – around the globe.

The people of many countries consider the geranium the epitome of homeland feeling. The Swiss have even elected it their country’s national plant. And yet this charming beauty is actually an exotic plant in Europe. It was originally native to southern Africa. From the Cape of Good Hope the plant embarked on its triumphant advance across the globe in the 17th century.

South Africa, the cradle of pelargoniums

More than 250 wild species of pelargoniums can be found in South Africa, some 50 of which grow in the area around Table Mountain. Pelargoniums are also indigenous to Australia, New Zealand, Iran and Iraq, although nowhere are there as many varieties as in South Africa. Many of the wild species have little in common with the growth forms available to us today. For example, some varieties are bushy shrubs attaining heights of up to two metres, while others grow as succulent-stemmed perennials in hot, dry habitats. These plants attain heights of up to one metre and often have thick, fleshy stems that serve as water reservoirs.

From the Cape of Good Hope to Leiden in the Netherlands

Just when and where the first pelargoniums came to Europe is unknown. But one thing is certain: In 1672 numerous wild pelargonium species were brought from South Africa to the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. As early as 1652 the Dutch had established a base at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, which provided a supply base for ships on the way to the Dutch East India Company.

In 1672 Paul Hermann, a German botanist and medical doctor serving on the Dutch ships, took advantage of a brief stop at the Cape of Good Hope to study the plant world around the foothills of Table Mountain. In addition to numerous other flowering plants he discovered pelargoniums there and decided to have several specimens shipped back to the Netherlands. The plants proved to be astonishingly hardy and survived the long voyage unscathed. As a result, by 1686 there were already ten different pelargonium species growing in the botanical gardens of the town of Leiden.

The triumphant advance of the pelargonium

From Leiden the exotic beauties spread to various other botanical gardens in the Netherlands. In the 18th century they could be found in botanical gardens throughout Europe. The nobility and prosperous urbanites discovered these lovely flowers and cultivated them in their gardens and greenhouses. Right from the start, the pelargonium was confused with the geranium. It was not until the end of the 18th century that it was allocated to the botanical genus “Pelargonium”. Nevertheless, to this day the correct term Pelargonium has not succeeded in replacing the name geranium. In the 19th century pelargoniums were flourishing all across Europe. This resulted in countless varieties with a range of different colours, growth patterns and leaf shapes. In 1826 the Weimar “Hortus Belvederanus” plant almanac listed 352 geranium varieties and hybrids.

The geranium of today

Today the cultivation and production of geraniums is a booming global business. Every year a number of new varieties are launched in the market. The current range encompasses over 500 different types of geranium, most of which can be traced back to just a few of the 280 known wild species. In the sunny climes of Africa and Central America, mother stock plants of modern pelargoniums are propagated in greenhouses. Every year millions of cuttings are harvested from these stock plants, which are then delivered by plane to the countries where they are further cultivated into market plants in commercial nurseries and garden centres.

Today some 500 million pelargoniums are sold every year in Europe alone. And there seems to be no end to this success story in sight.