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Scented geraniums: citrus or spice in a throwback to Victorian parlors

Do you love the fragrance of fresh fruit and flowers? Would you like to sniff the perfume of roses as well as the tang of orange and lemon on your windowsill? You can collect these and many more aromas when you get into scented geraniums.

Cousins of the bright-flowering geraniums, these plants are grown mainly for their sweet-scented leaves.

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Scented geraniums were first brought to Europe from South Africa about 300 years ago and became especially popular during Victorian times. Today we are rediscovering them as handsome houseplants which are fun to grow and very easy to care for.

Where can you find scented geraniums? You will usually find them wherever herbs are grown.

First check with herb-growing friends or relatives. They may have some extra plants to share. If not, look along the herb shelf at your local greenhouse or nursery.

In addition to citrus scents, you may find other fruit scents, such as apple, coconut, pineapple, and strawberry. Then there are the spices: cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and peppermint.

Pinch or rub the leaves, inhale the delicious fragrance, and then choose your favorites.

If plant space is limited, you might decide on two or three smaller varieties , such as apple, orange, lime, or ginger. Although taller, the lemon-scented plants grow in neat, compact shapes and do not need much space. Coconut, apple, and nutmeg geraniums are pretty in hanging baskets, but be sure to adjust their heights for easy touching and smelling.

If space is no problem, select the larger-growing varieties, such as rose, peppermint, and pine. You might find some with tiny blossoms which may be white, pink, reddish-orange, or purple.

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Your scented geraniums will thrive and release their perfumes especially well in a south-facing window in full sunlight. But they also grow well when facing east or west and with as little as four hours of sunshine a day.

Temperatures between 50 and 60 degrees F. suit their needs.

Use a regular commercial potting mix, perhaps with a little sand added. Be careful not to overfeed your geraniums because slow growth is best for the development of fragrance.

Water only when the soil surface feels dry to the touch.

At vacation time, you can move your houseplants into the shade and they will rest for a week or two without water. Or you can move them outdoors onto a shaded balcony or patio. You shouldn't worry about pests or disease because, as with herbs, their scents seem to keep the bugs away.

Your new plants will quickly produce lots of fragrant foliage, especially if new leaves are pinched off regularly.

As with herbs, you can have fun experimenting with them to flavor foods. Add two or three fresh rose-, mint-, or lemon-scented leaves to plain baked custard or the batter for sponge or pound cake. In desserts such as these, not loaded with other seasonings, the delicate aroma can come through.

You might also try scenting sugar. Put several rose-scented leaves into the regular cane or confectioner's sugar canister and leave for several days, stirring occasionally. Your next batch of cookies or the frosting for that special birthday cake will have a mysterious sweetness.

Scented geraniums make great gifts for selling at your own garage sale or your group's rummage sale - or even for giving to those special people on your gift list.

You can grow your own baby plants for this purpose by taking stem cuttings of your favorites. They are usually easy to root in spring or fall, especially when the parent plants are growing strongly.

To make cuttings, use a sharp knife to cut off pieces of firm green stem two or three inches long from either the top or side of plants. Pinch off the lower leaves and stick the cuttings into a big pot which has been filled with damp, but not soaking wet, perlite and sand.

Space the cuttings at least an inch part. Set the pot in a shady place.

New roots take about three weeks to form. We write down the date so we won't pull them up again and again, checking for new roots. Keep the cuttings moist by misting with a fine spray every day. When the new roots are almost an inch long and fresh little leaves are growing on top, fill the small pots with regular houseplant potting soil.

Plant each young geranium in a separate pot, water well, and place in a sunny spot. (Remember to water more often, as these small pots dry out faster). You should soon have lots of pretty scented plants which few people will be able to resist.

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