The Gardener's Apprentice

Mourning Widow

I last thought seriously about Geranium phaeum, aka “the mourning widow,” about six years ago.  I was in the first throes of a serious love affair with all kinds of hardy geraniums and was swept off my feet by the phaeum species, because it thrives so well in shade.  I bought one and it died, so after lamenting the death of the “mourning widow”, I moved on to other plants that gave greater satisfaction.

The love affair with hardy geraniums has settled into a happy marriage, which is evident throughout my garden.  I have masses of the indispensable bigroot geranium—Geranium macrorrhizum—in several places.  Right now its pink flowers are in their glory and the apple-scented foliage charms whenever I brush up against it.  ‘Biokovo’, a variety of Geranium cantabrigiense, is also blooming and its finely dissected foliage is beautiful every day.  Both make excellent ground covers and work hard at stomping weeds, which means less labor for this lazy gardener.  Other geraniums ornament various corners beautifully and ask little of me.

But last weekend, as I toured the magical garden of a horticultural master of my acquaintance, I came face to face with Geranium phaeum once again.  My host grows several varieties, all flourishing in shady spots, but I was most struck by the healthy clumps of ‘Samobor’.  Like most phaeums, the plants stand up to 24 inches tall and perhaps 12 inches wide.  The nodding flowers at the tops of the stalks are dark maroon-purple, with slightly reflexed petals and a white “eye” in the center of each bloom.  ‘Samobor’s late spring flowers are lovely, but its best features are the leaves, which bear distinctive, pointed lobes.  To add to the show, each leaf is also marked with a wide ring of dramatic purple-black blotches.

As a species, Geranium phaeum, sometimes also known as “dusky cranesbill” or “black widow”, is native to parts of Eurasia, including Croatia.  ‘Samobor’ is a naturally occurring variant of the species, found growing 25 years ago at an English nursery.  Fittingly, it was named after a Croatian town.  It was introduced into commerce in this country by the late, lamented Heronswood Nursery of Kitsap, Washington.  Though not as wildly popular as sun-loving hardy geraniums like ‘Rozanne’, ‘Samobor’ has acquired a following of its own.

But wait–as they say on late night ads–there’s more.  A check of the online specialty plant marketplace reveals a host of mourning widow varieties in many shades of mourning dress.  Varietal variations also include the presence or absence of leaf markings.  ‘Advendo’, for example features solid green leaves and large flowers in a clear, reddish-purple.  ‘Margaret Wilson’ does not have maroon-blotched leaves, but the deeply cut foliage is adorned by green and white variegation.  The flowers are pale purple.  ‘Langthorn’s’ Blue’ features maroon leaf splotches and reflexed blue-purple flowers suffused with white.  Compared with other mourning widows, ‘Album’ looks positively cheerful, with pure white flowers and somewhat marked foliage.  German breeders have brought forth ‘Walkure’ and ‘Mierhausen’, the former featuring lighter-colored flowers than the latter, though both bear purplish blooms with white overtones.

If Geranium phaeum works in your garden, try growing clumps of several varieties to make the most of the contrast in foliage textures and colors.

Encourage  mourning widows to thrive, rather than moping around the garden, by providing them with partial shade and consistently moist soil.  Moisture is most important when they are establishing themselves.  Thereafter, the plants can tolerate some drought.  No matter what the conditions, I am inclined to help out Mother Nature with a good blanket of mulch.  Like all cranesbills, the phaeum varieties bear seedheads that resemble long-beaked birds.  If not deadheaded, they are perfectly capable of spitting their seeds some distance, so be on the lookout for baby mourning widows—sometimes in unexpected places.

Mourning widow is a rather grim nickname for a very useful group of perennial plants.  The flowers, though attractive, are fleeting, but the foliage carries the plants gracefully through the entire growing season.  Find a good selection at Digging Dog Nursery, 31101 Middle Ridge Rd., Albion, CA 95410, (707) 937-1130, www.diggingdog.com.  Another good source is Geraniaceae, 122 Hillcrest Ave., Kentfield, CA 94904, (415) 461-4168, geraniaceae.com.