Geranium Kasia Boddy
The new book,Geranium, by Kasia Boddy (2013, Reaktion Books, London, 216 pp, $27) is a complete
departure from previous books about geraniums (botanicallyPelargonium). I skeptically wondered
what a Lecturer in American Literature at the University of Cambridge could add to our knowledge
of the botany, taxonomy and culture of the ever-popular red geranium. I was completely (and
pleasantly) surprised when I found that she had plenty/lots to teach us about the place of the red geranium
in our social history. If you think this book will solve any taxonomic (name) problems or teach
you how to grow bigger, better or more beautiful plants, you will be very disappointed. However, if
you are interested in sociology, art, history and literature, this book will be a joy for you to read.
When the book arrived in the mail, I was deeply involved in other projects and felt I could not spare
the time just then to read it. But curiosity dictated that I flip through the pages to, at least, scan the
illustrations (112 with 88 in color). Well, I was immediately intrigued by the diverse types/sources of
images present. Historically important botanical illustrations (Ch. 1 & 2) were followed by images of
paintings by significant artists, pop cultural images in advertisements, children’s books and travel
posters, to name a few. They all featured geraniums in one way or another. Do I need to say, I ignored
all my other jobs and read the book from cover to cover over the next 24 hours? While the
publicity (on what would be a dust jacket if this book had one) says “Geranium explores the everchanging
image of the plant as portrayed in painting, literature, film and popular culture worldwide,”
the emphasis is still British and American with worldwide reference relatively few. However, as an
in-depth study of the areas of British and American culture touched by the common red geranium,
there is nothing to compare to this book. The five chapters (1) Out of Africa, (2) New Familiars, (3)
Bedding and Breeding, (4) The Geranium in the Window, and (5) Brief Fall, then Inexorable Rise
plus the Introduction and Postscript are thoroughly documented with 430 footnotes in small type on
20 pages. If you want to know more about the fascinating connections between geraniums and our
social history, you could hardly be given more leads.
Who knew that Shirley Temple sang about her favorite “bright, red geranium,” that the great botanical
artist Pierrre Redoute was trained in onPelargonium by L’Heritier, that geraniums were a favorite
of Charles Dickens, that they were used to raise the status of the lower classes in Victorian England
with flower shows for the poor, or anchored an ad for “Time for a Breather” promoting beer. This
and so much more. The myriad mentions of geranium in literature are well documented. We were
not surprised that these plants were important to Monet and the other Impression
Impressionists but here it’s all recorded and illustrated.
The book is well written, entertaining and enlightening. There are a few typographical errors and omissions.
Two errors are perpetuated. The first regards the presence in Europe of ancestors of all four main groups of modern geraniums
(zonal, ivy, regal AND scented) by the beginning of the 18th century (not just the first three) and the second is the fact that
Trattinnick published six volumes illustrating 264 hybrids (not four volumes with 400 hybrids). The plant illustrated on p. 57 is
not a regal geranium; it has too many buds.
This book is a fine and distinctive addition to the literature and history of the geranium (emphasis on the red flowered zonal geranium
– botanically known as Pelargonium x hortorum). Geranium should be enjoyed by all garden and geranium enthusiasts –
pelargonistes – as well as social historians and botanists who want to understand these plants and their historical context and contributions.
This book is highly recommended.