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Beauty and usefulness in scented geraniums

Geraniums, gardeners often say, ask so little, yet give so much. Indeed, they require only water when dry, sunlight, and stern discipline. If not ruthlessly controlled, they will rapidly become ungainly; thus, constant pruning is essential. Cutting a plant back to the base is the best method of producing a stately, well-branched specimen.

The first scented geraniums were introduced into Europe from the Cape of Good Hope in 1690. Nearly a century later their original name was found botanically incorrect.

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Although belonging to the geranium family, they are classed as pelargoniums. Yet, because they had already won renown under their former name, the public continues to call these plants scented geraniums.

Scented geraniums grow the year around. Lack of sufficient light in winter, however, may cause long, spindly growth. It is in this season that pruning is most necessary. During the winter, fertilizer should be withheld for this same reason. Feeding can be resumed in midspring.

Although scented geraniums are not hardy outdoors, one stock plant housed indoors over the winter will provide cuttings to be rooted in the spring for the garden. Both the mother plant and her cuttings require full sun.

After all danger of frost is past, plant the cuttings outdoors, choosing a sunny, well-drained location.

Peppermint, Joy Lucille, and Giant Oak are of formidable size and become ''instant hedges'' in two months' time. Varieties of medium height, such as those in the rose group, should be spaced out with three feet between neighbors. Scenteds with a prostrate habit, such as ''apple'' and ''nutmeg,'' can be used for borders.

Due to their exotic aromas, scenteds are virtually pest-free. Occasionally, however, the plants are bothered by aphids, but they can be controlled with rotenone.

It is not known when scented geraniums first arrived in America. From 1750 onward they were common garden plants. Originally, all scented geraniums were referred to as ''rose scented.'' Although many other aromas have been collected, P. graveolens, the authentic rose, remains the most popular.

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Indeed, P. graveolens well deserves its fame. Not only does it boast attractive, downy foliage, but also umbels of lavender flowers in the spring and summer. To add to its virtues, it is useful.

Fresh rose geranium leaves are traditionally added to apple jelly before sealing the jar, lending the preserves a fresh, spicy aroma.

The dried leaves of P. graveolens are often placed in linen to impart their sweet aroma. A popular potpourri recipe includes rose- and lemon-scented geraniums. This is fixed with orris root, one ounce of fixative per quart of potpourri.

Although no rival in beauty, it was discovered that rose geraniums effectively imitate the real rose in fragrance for perfume. Large plantations of geraniums were developed, primarily in Algeria and southern France, but also in the Western United States.

The enterprise proved most profitable in Algeria, where two cuttings of the foliage could be harvested yearly for distillation.

In addition to rose, numerous other scented leaved species were introduced from South Africa. For convenience, they were labeled with the names of fruits and spices which they allegedly mimic.

There are nutmeg-, coconut-, cinnamon-, lemon-, orange-, strawberry-, and peppermint-scented geraniums, to list only a few.

Whether they actually bear the same aroma as their namesakes is purely a matter of opinion. There also exist many hybrids between the scents. Some attempt to capture a specific smell, such as P. ''old spice.'' Others try for large and brightly colored flowers, the most successful being P.''Clorinda.''

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