Martha Washington (Regal) Geraniums
by Jim Zemcik
One of the nice things about living in Central and Southern California is that our climate is perfect for this group
of geraniums. The very fancy almost azalea like blooms and their overall resistance to pests makes them a
growing favorite here. For over 50 years their popularity was driven only by the blooms. Some shunned older
varieties because of their overall leggy habits, relatively short bloom period, the need for an extended cold
snap to bloom prolifically and a tendency to attract white-fly. Additionally, they would stop blooming if they
got too dry and did not recover and re-bloom until the following year. That has all changed.
Several years ago English breeder Ernest Walters developed the first of more compact and heavily longer blooming
regal geraniums. In this country that work was improved on by David Lemon of Lompoc. He successfully extended
the range of blooms, was able to overcome the need for a cold snap to initiate heavy blooming and virtually eliminated
the white-fly problem. Best of all, the compact plants he produced tend to bloom 12 months a year in our climate.
These plants do not do well in extremely high heat/high humidity areas and that pretty well encompasses most of
the world. So while one does not find these plants popular in places like Dallas and Chicago, they thrive in a mild
Mediterranean climate like Central and Southern California and, interestingly, in Alaska where the extremely long
daylight is the summers results in absolutely remarkable plants. You will not find these used in the landscape as
widely as the zonal types, but where they do well they are very popular.
These newer varieties are the type used in San Diego’s Balboa Park for the central park planting in front of its
Organ Pavilion. They were chosen for their ability to perform with minimal maintenance including low fertilization
rates and minimal to non-necessary pest control. They remain popular with the public and I have seen pictures of
that planting in calendars and all over the internet. They are not only very striking but they have turned out to be a
good publicity vehicle for the Park.
Pruning for these plants is different than for the older varieties. To achieve heavily blooming and manageable compact
plants with the older varieties, a three stage pruning process in the fall was necessary. The newer varieties by and
large don’t require pruning. They do require the removal of bloom growth. They will keep blooming all year around.
The only complaint I have heard is that they require more deadheading because they bloom so prolifically. I think
that’s a small price to pay.
By virtue of the way plants are propagated and sold, the newer varieties may not be available everywhere and then are
generally only available in spring and summer. The industry has changed and as the large growers expand their purchase
of plant plugs from large international propagators, instead of field growing stock plants, these plants are becoming more
common. In the greater Los Angeles area, which includes Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and Ventura counties, the
new varieties are easy to find. Grand View is the largest producer and those counties are their marketing area. In areas
not serviced by Grand View often the only plants available at your local nursery are the older varieties. Look at the plant
label. For example, if the tag shows the plant is an Oglevee/Ecke, Dummen or PAC plant you are looking at one of the
newer varieties. The Oglevee/Ecke varieties tend to have much, much larger blooms than the others. In addition, plants
introduced by SOHO’s Geranium George Project are all larger bloomed newer varieties and are usually available at the
Marston House Museum Gift Shop in Balboa Park in San Diego. Those varieties include the ever popular ‘Kate Sessions’
and the spectacular ‘Balboa Park 2015’.
To paraphrase an old TV commercial – try them, you’ll like them.