E ACH TIME I LECTURE, AS I DID THIS WEEKEND, somebody asks afterward about a photo of “that geranium,” meaning Geranium phaeum ‘Samobor,’ whose picture I show the way you show off the family snapshots and mention only the kids in detail, not saying a word about your spouse. Yes, I’ve come to take ‘Samobor’ for granted, after a decade or so together. But here and now this faithful, indispensable and handsome shade stalwart gets its own profile. You know the routine: This is another plant I’d order if I was letting myself order any more plants, and if I didn’t already have it. More adventures in armchair shopping, once-removed. Onward.
I couldn’t make a garden without the perennial geraniums helping knit together the picture, and in shady spots (like under shrubs such as the ‘Royal Cloak’ barberry, above) G. phaeum is of particular value.
I was happy to see a really good selection of G. phaeum, including ‘Samobor,’ in this year’s catalog from Digging Dog Nursery, whose amazing Northern California gardens made the cover of Martha Stewart Living’s 2006 annual March garden issue and will be featured in May 2009 in Gardens Illustrated.
G. phaeum is called “the mourning widow” for its downward-facing, eggplant-purple blossoms. (Click on the top photo to really get the idea.) In the case of ‘Samobor,’ the widow wears dark chevrons on her foliage, too. Not all of them dress alike: G.p. ‘Lily Lovell’ has slightly bigger flowers and bright green leaves (no markings); ‘Langthorn’s Blue’ has subtle dark speckles on its leaves and brighter, violet blossoms; ‘Album,’ as its name suggests, is white-flowered, with green leaves.
I grow the phaeums in deep shade to half-day sun, and they sow themselves around, some individuals proving more or less showy than others, varying in leaf markings and even flower size.
The profusion of little flowers, on wiry stems, comes in May for me, dancing around with alliums in the front garden and elsewhere. The geranium foliage helps to disguise the ugly “feet” of many alliums, whose foliage browns well before you’re finished enjoying the blooms, and the geraniums cover up minor bulbs that are fading, too. (You can see some other things it blooms with on this 2008 post.)
By the second week of June or so, the phaeums will seem to have stretched up and are quite ungainly, so I whack them back to the ground and a tidy, new flush of handsome foliage (above) emerges to keep me company the rest of the season. Don’t resist this step, and waste time trimming out only the flower stalks; butcher it as I do my equally indispensable bigroot geranium, G. macrorrhizum. You will be rewarded for your stern hand.
Geranium phaeum Sources:
- Many local nurseries carry the increasingly popular G. phaeum varieties. Ask.
- Digging Dog Nursery has all the cultivars mentioned here.