The Gardener's Apprentice

Renard’s Cranesbill

Life is full of dichotomies.  I freely admit to falling madly in love with a different plant every few weeks during the growing season, but I am also remarkably faithful to plants that have served me well over many years.  Hardy geraniums fall into that latter category.

Hardy geraniums, also known as cranesbills, are Geraniaceae family cousins of the big, fluffy-headed zonal geraniums that dominate our summer containers and window boxes.  The family resemblance is easy to spot.  Common geranium flowerheads are composed of individual florets with five petals apiece.  Hardy geraniums bear individual flowers that look like larger versions of those five-petaled florets.  Instead of big, rounded leaves, cranesbills feature more deeply dissected foliage that gives the plants a refined appearance.  As the common name suggests, cranesbills are also winter hardy in cold weather climates, making them dependable contributors to the perennial landscape.  And dependability, as everyone knows, is one of the keys to successful long term relationships.

In my gardening career, more than a few hardy geraniums have inspired love at first sight.  One glimpse of the meadow cranesbill ‘Dark Reiter’, with its purple-black ferny foliage, mounding habit and periwinkle-blue flowers, and I was smitten.  Cash flew out of my wallet involuntarily.  Little ‘Sweet Heidy’, with flowers that feature a white central “eye”, surrounded by a pinkish-purple ring that gives way to darker purple petal edges, also had me within twenty  seconds.  Over a decade ago, the whole gardening world formed a passionate attachment to ‘Rozanne’, with its blue flowers and frequent flushes of bloom.  ‘Rozanne’ made an immediate impression on me and has continued to enchant ever since, despite its tendency to sprawl at will.

My biggest cranesbill crush happened over ten years ago, when I saw Renard’s cranesbill—Geranium renardii–across the crowded pages of an English garden magazine.  At the time, only two American retailers carried the plant and neither was willing to ship.  Fortunately, I was willing to travel two hours to lay hands on one.  My late husband, always the crown prince of garden enablers, volunteered to drive.  His reward was a double rum raisin ice cream cone from the stand next to the nursery.  Mine was two Geranium renardii plants.

What was the attraction of Renard’s cranesbill?  For me it was the flowers, which are either palest violet or cream, depending on the plant.  Every petal is etched with darker purple veins and sports a dimple at the center of the outer edge.  The petals do not overlap each other, so each one stands out, giving the individual flowers a wide-awake look.  Gray-green renardii foliage is scalloped and softly felted, making it appealing to touch.  The plants are small and top out at only six to twelve inches, forming mounds as they mature.  If you are lucky, they will self-seed, although they are never rude about it.

Sadly, I was not lucky with my first two Geranium renardii.  They were accidentally crushed by a tree trimming crew and did not recover.  I was upset, but vowed to try again when the time was right and the plants could be positioned far from areas frequented by tree and shrub professionals.

Last week I opened up one of the many garden catalogs that have flooded my mailbox since the holidays and came face to face with Geranium renardii once again.  This time, however, it was listed by a nursery that ships plants.  I put in my order.

When I install my Renard’s cranesbills, I will try to emulate the free-draining conditions they might enjoy in their native Caucasus Mountains, adding fine gravel to the soil in the planting holes.  In addition to avoiding areas that might be trampled by workmen, I will put the cranesbills in a sunny spot and water well until they are established.  Thereafter they will be somewhat drought tolerant, according to various sources.  I will keep an eye on them just in case.

My newest cranesbills may not bloom this coming spring, as they generally flower in late May or June.  However, you never know about such things and the plants might surprise me.  If that happens, I will give thanks to their namesake, a nineteenth century Russian naturalist, whose name is commonly styled in its Anglicized incarnation—Charles Claude Renard.  I will also conjure up the happy picture of my husband with his rum raisin cone.

If you are looking for a gorgeous plant that will ennoble your beds, borders or even containers, try Geranium renardii.  You can order it from Digging Dog Nursery, 31101 Middle Ridge Road, Albion, CA 95410; (707) 937-1235;  Free print catalog, with more extensive plant listings online.