Cottage Gardener 3: 96-98 (November 22, 1849)
Breeding Geraniums
Donald Beaton

At the close of my last communication, I incidentally named the white variety of the horse-shoe geranium; but a white scarlet geranium is too great a novelty to be passed over, as the first link in a shaded bed. This white geranium is nearly as old as any of the wild species, but is an accidental seedling, I believe. According to our present notions, the size and shape of this flower ore not much to boast of, certainly, but they are pure white; therefore, like other plants which are not to our fancy, we must raise many seedlings of it to procure improved forms. It seeds of itself, as freely as the mignonette, and will soon procure us a new race for shading. I have it already in the honourable position of grandmamma, but the third generation have not vet hoisted their colours. I have two beautiful light coloured ones, however, from the second cross of it with Lucia rosea; one of which is a fine soft cream colour, and a good house-plant, especially in the spring and autumn. I have not the slightest doubt but we shall soon have pure white geraniums of the scarlet breed, with trusses of bloom as large as any of the scarlets we now possess, and fine-shaped flowers too; and not only that, but during the progress of our experiments in crossing, several useful shades will come on the stage, and thus realise the dreams of some of the don flower-gardeners for the last seven years. The greater the number of those who will engage in these experiments, and lend a helping hand, the sooner the desired result will be accomplished. But, in order that we may work in concert, I may as well give the properties of a flower of this class, so as to come within the requirements of the flower-gardener.

The true geraniums are hardy border plants, with regular flowers — that is, the five petals which make up a single flower are all of one size and shape, so that when put together they form a cup, with the edge as regular as that of a china tea-cup. The pelargoniums, or florists' geraniums, have irregular flowers, owing to the two back petals in their flowers being much larger than the three lower ones, and the scarlet geraniums have also irregular flowers, owing to a contrary arrangement. In these, the two back petals are much narrower than the three front ones, so that each section is characterized by well marked features, which any person can understand at first sight. Therefore, no matter by what names we distinguish these sections from each other, either of them must stand clear of the other two; and so they do naturally, for they will not intermix by their pollen. The florist and the flower-gardener take it for granted that their respective sections branched out originally from the true geraniums, and in doing so lost the best feature of the parent-stock, just as often happens to colonists of our own family when they depart from the "wisdom of their ancestors." Now, those worthies — I mean the florist and the flower-gardener — endeavour to improve the character of their respective breeds by turning the shape of the flowers back as much as possible to that of the original type — that is, to a regular form; and they have been so successful already as to reproduce true geraniums out of the pelargonium and pelargonium sections. The florist, by getting up the size of the bottom petals of his flowers to that of the top ones, and the flower-gardener, by enlarging the top petals of this section to the size of the lower ones, and all this time good cultivation or good feeding, produced a corresponding improvement in the substance of the individual petals. Consequently, a good round shape and full substance are the two first essentials in a scarlet geranium, and unless the two top petals are nearly as large as the three bottom ones, the flower is not the right shape. A great many of the most fashionable scarlets have an awkward way of rolling back their top petals, and you should never cross from a seedling of this habit, unless the colour is very peculiar, and you want to follow it out at all hazards, trusting to a better shape in a future generation The third character is that of the truss; it should stand well up above the leaves, but not so far as to reveal them. Tom Thumb is very awkward in this character — its flower stalks are too long; and if a large plant of it produced a score of trusses in a pot, they would not bide a single leaf from the view, so that in it two masses of colour — green and scarlet — vie with each other; whereas, if the footstalks were shorter, the scarlet could only be seen with here and there a glimpse of the green loaves. This summer there were two boxes full of Judi on one of the terraces here — each box ten feet long, and nearly a yard wide — and for three or four months you could only see a glimpse of the leaves hero and there, just enough to relieve the intense brilliancy of the flowers. The plants were in the same soil for the first four years on Harry Moore's plan; yet, seven or eight trusses of Judi would hardly make one truss of the size of that of Tom Thumb, so that a seedling may furnish an immense truss, and yet not form so rich a bed or basket as another with trusses half the size; hence the reason why I recommend footstalks sufficiently long to elevate the flowers only to the surface of the foliage. The next essential character in these seedlings is the shape of the truss and the disposition of the flowers. At present, the trusses of these scarlets are of two forms — the flat and the globular. Those with flat trusses, or bunches like the flowers of the elder, make by far the best bedders, as that form of flower covers more space, and hides the leaves more than the globe flowers. Shrubland scarlet, Compactum, and Gem of scarlets ("let out" last spring by Mr. Ayres), are the three best globular-flowered ones we have. The Compactum is the least capricious of the three as to soil, and I fear the Gem of scarlets will not do here; the flowers are set so close on the truss that they cannot expand properly without strong soil; but where this variety will succeed, as I think it must on all heavy or damp soils, it will turn out the best bedding one we have after Punch, which, however, will only succeed on poor light or gravelly soil. Punch having a flat-headed truss, twenty of its trusses, or single flowers, will cover as much space as thirty or forty of those of the Gem of scarlets. The flowers of the Gem, individually, are the smallest of all the scarlets I know, and I think I have seen all of them that are worth culture, but the trusses are immensely large, and every flower has a distinct white eye; the footstalk is nearly as long as that of the Shrubland scarlet, and altogether is a most beautiful thing. Royalist is the next best bedder, and is more likely to suit different soils than many of the now ones. It is a well-marked horse-shoe, with very large trusses, which are intermediate between the globular and flat-beaded ones. It was sent out Inst year by the late Mr. Conway, and I mention it to exemplify the three prominent forms of truss in this section of geraniums, and also to explain the reasons I have for recommending such and such characters in seedlings, these reasons being all founded on usefulness rather than on any whimsical fancy; and let us now recapitulate them.

Flowers as nearly cup-shaped as possible; the two back petals to be as broad as the three front ones; the truss to be flat on the top, and the flowers set loosely on it; the footstalk not to be longer than merely to raise the flowers free from the leaves; a small truss to consist of from 50 to 60 flowers, and a large one double that number; shade of colour mere fancy — anything from pure white to dark scarlet will find a place in the flower-garden.

These scarlet geraniums were in their prime at the end of October, but a selection of names from among them will not be (worth much, as many of them vary exceedingly on different soils. The next class of geraniums for flower beds is composed of various sections, which the florists, in their impatience, have been foolish enough to discard. They are everlasting flowerers, or hybrid perpetuals, as we call them here for distinction's sake. Some of them make splendid beds, and a good assortment of them were in full beauty at the time of taking these notes — the end of October. Diadematum and Diadematum rubescens, withUnique and Lady Mary Fox, struggle on the very point of my pen for preference; and there are more candidates of equal merit; but, like other things which are swayed by fancy or taste, each of those bedders will have its admirers, and some will prefer one, and some another. Perhaps it is not fair to put up Unique in competition as a candidate for favour, as it stands alone in the endless varieties belonging to this family in colour and richness of tints. The florists, with all their "rules of art," have never been able to obtain so rich a purple as that of Unique. Yet, of all the geraniums, this has less cause to boast of high lineage, having descended from a little insignificant weed (Capitatum) with pale lilac blossoms. Mr. Wood, a friend of mine, writing in the Gardener's Chronicle, first recommended Unique as a bedder, where he offered a great indignity to her majesty the Queen of Portugal, who is Unique's only sister, by confounding the two together. If they were twins, however, they could not be more alike, but the Queen of Portugal is of a stronger constitution, and would cover a space in three years which Unique would hardly cover in six, as I have long since proved on the conservatory wall here; but as Uniqueflowers down to Christmas, and the Queen of Portugal is generally over by the end of October, we prefer Unique for the wall; but in seven years it has not attained the height of five feet. The principal bed in the centre of a fancy parterre garden here is planted with Unique, and edged by a band of the Golden Chain dwarf geranium, about ten inches wide; and were it not for fear of being thought that I used too much freedom, I could give a fine history of how the ladies expressed their admiration of this arrangement. I am less scrupulous, however, about telling what gentlemen said of it, and I heard one of the best English amateur planters say that "the effect was inimitable" Lady Mary Fox has not been long used for beds, but some prefer it to Unique. It is an orange scarlet, with dark marks in the upper petals, flowering most freely from May to Christmas; and at Madeira I have no doubt this, and half a dozen others in this section, would flower all the year round. Those who are old enough to recollect a geranium called Ignescens major, some twenty years back, will have no difficulty to understand what a brilliant one Lady Mary Fox is, when I say that it is twice the size of the Ignescens, with the same colours; but to show how little encouragement is given to originate such beautiful things for our flower beds, Mr. Dennis, of the King's Road, Chelsea, advertised this plant for the first time, only two years since, at six shillings the dozen, while trumpery pelargoniums, that you can hardly got to bloom well for three weeks in a whole season, were selling at two guineas a-piece. Now, the reason of all this must be, that the florists keep their fine things constantly before the public by their books and advertisements, so that they are thoroughly known; while flower-gardening, as an art, has never yet been taken up by any one. Formerly, the flower-garden was left for the foreground pictures of landscape gardeners, where docks, rushes, and gilliflowers, might mingle together; hence flower-gardening is considered to come within the province of the landscape painter. But flower-gardening, as practised in the present day, is a total mystery to the mere landscape painter; and no wonder, seeing that it has no more relation to landscape gardening than poetry has to prose; and both are distinct from the profession, which only aims at teaching the uninitiated how to cull the best flowers, and sow the gayest annuals for the domestic flower-beds.

Beaton Bibliography