Adding a little spice to life
I was at a perfectly ordinary plant fair a couple of years ago, mooching around the stalls and idly wondering whether a Clematis 'Niobe' in full flower and trained onto a 6ft high wigwam would fit into the back of a Renault Clio, when I walked into what I can only describe as a wall of scent.
This wasn't your run-of-the-mill lily-of-the-valley and lavender so beloved of soap-makers and grandmas everywhere, either. This had hints of citrus, and curious earthy woody overtones. There was something with a minty tang, and something else, spicy and rich, with a flavour of nutmeg.
Pelargonium 'Lady Mary'
It was all coming from a stall I would normally have walked straight past: a nursery specialising in geraniums, more properly known as Pelargoniums. I have far too many blowsy fat red geraniums filling tubs all over my patio already, and I don't even like them that much: they just arrive and I haven't the heart to get rid of them.
But the plants filling the air with their spicy perfumes weren't just any pelargonium: these were scented-leaf pelargoniums. And I was hooked.
I should here issue a health warning: if you buy one scented-leaf geranium you will want every single one you can lay your hands on. You will fall hopelessly and headlong in love with their demure but exquisite charms; once you've tried growing the cinnamon-scented one you'll have to have the one which smells of oranges, and then you'll feel life has no meaning without the chocolate peppermint one. That's it: you're lost.
The charms of scented-leaf types are subtle compared with their bright red cousins. Though there are some with larger flowers - 'Copthorne', for example, or 'Orsett' - they're not my favourites; most have tiny, dainty, dancing flowers which I find far more captivating.
The leaves, too, come in some strange shapes and sizes. Lemon-scented Geranium graveolens 'Bontrosai' has wierd-looking scrunched-up leaves clustered in odd green bubbles, and the wide, plate-like leaves of sprawling pepperminty Pelargonium tomentosum are covered in a soft, velvety fuzz.
But it's the heavy, intensely scented oils those leaves contain which go to your head. They start to evaporate in warm weather, or whenever you brush past them (site them by a path to make sure this happens often), or of course when you pick them. You'll find yourself stock still, breathing deeply, eyes closed, in love.
Plant hunter and botanist John Tradescant brought the first one, said to have been the heartbreakingly delicate Pelargonium triste, to the UK from South Africa in the early 1600s. You can just imagine them sparkling daintily in an Elizabethan herb garden.
And in fact scented-leaf geraniums are technically herbs: you can use those leaves in all sorts of things. They make a generous base for pot pourri and perfumes, bath oils and body oils; or you can lace your food with them for fragrant cookies, home-made sorbets and cream.
And here's a mouthwatering idea: perfume your sugar by alternating layers of sugar and scented geranium leaves in a jar. Seal and place in sunlight for a couple of weeks turning occasionally, sift out the leaves and use your perfumed sugar in biscuits, cakes, on fruit or in teas. Nigella, eat your heart out: this is domestic goddessery of which you can only dream.
Top five scented-leaf geraniums to try:
- Pelargonium 'Attar of Roses': probably the most popular variety, rightly so, and best for cooking: small, grey-green leaves with a rich and spicy rose scent.
- P. tomentosum: rather sprawling and lanky, but the leaves are large and velvety-soft with a delicious peppermint scent.
- P. 'Ardwick Cinnamon': clouds of small white flowers over grey-green leaves and a delicious, spicy cinnamon perfum.
- P. triste: the first and still among the best. The dainty flowers are bone-china delicate with chocolate-brown daubs on cream petals; the spicy scent is released in the evening.
- P. 'Prince of Orange': glossy leaves, relatively large flowers in purple-veined pink, and a show-stopping fragrance like a glass of iced orange juice on a hot day.
Sally Nex is a garden writer and blogger and part of the BBC Gardening team.