MORE THOUGHTS ABOUT REGAL PELARGONIUMS
By Wayne Handlos, Ph.D.
1.‘Beauty of Oxton’ 4. Gardener’s Chronicle 1841
2.‘Queen Victoria’ 5. Sweet, vol. 1, pl. 83 – P. macranthum
3. Jakob von Reider – Annalen Vol. 8 (1832) 6. Trattinnick, vol. 1, pl. 18 – P. hesperidium
^ Undescribed cultivar of proto-regal.
William Bull introduced the name "Regal" in his 1876 catalogue of New Beautiful and Rare Plants.
"The name is applied to that magnificent group of Pelargoniums, the flowers of which are of large size,
very rich and showy, and although they are not really double, yet from their fullness of form and extra
number of petals, they have the appearance of being so." He started with seven cultivars: ‘Beauty of Oxton',
‘Captain Raikes’, ‘Elegantissimum’, ‘La Ville de Caen’, ‘Madame Evrard’, ‘Prince of Pelargoniums’,
‘Queen Victoria’. He still recognized the categories of Spotted, Show, Fancy and Hybrid Perpetuals.
Continuing the royal/regal theme, in 1877 he introduced ‘Prince of Wales’, ‘Princess of Wales’; in 1879
the list included ‘Dr. Masters’, ‘Duchess of Bedford’ and ‘Prince of Teck’; 1892 found ‘Duchess of Fife’,
‘Duchess of Teck’, ‘Emperor of Russia’, ‘Empress Fredrick’, ‘Empress of India’, ‘Prince George’, ‘Prince
Henry’, ‘Princess Alexandra’, ‘Princess Beatrice’, ‘Princess Maud’ and ‘Princess Victoria’ added.
To my eye, it does not require a great leap of imagination to see the precursors of the regals, angels
and unique groups of Pelargoniums among the plants/flowers illustrated by Sweet, Trattinnick and
von Reider. Unfortunately, these writers only occasionally included measurements of the flowers and
petals – so we do not know exactly what sizes the flowers of these early hybrids were. However, when
measurements were given for flower size, the larger flowers were up to three inches across – a respectable
size even today. Individual petals were up to two inches long. Considerable variation in height was recorded
with plants as short as six inches or as tall as five feet! Branching habit was noted sometimes and varied
from little branched (lanky) to
densely branched. The raw material for today’s cultivars was largely available in the early 19th century.
[Examples: Regals: vonReider – ‘Prince Charles’, ‘Koenig Salomon’; Sweet – P. multinerve, P.
opulifolium; Trattinnick – P. macranthum, P. actinogramma. Angels: vonReider – ‘la Bourette’,
‘Belle Henriette’; Sweet – P. obtusilobum, P. pustulosum; Trattinnick – P. hesperidium, P. coriaceum.
Size examples: Sweet – P. macranthum, petals 2" long, flower 3" x 2"; von Reider – P. macranthum,
flowers 3 Zoll lang (3" long); Trattinnick – P. fastuosum, petals 1½ Z (inch long) x 1 Z wide]
Plant breeders through the ages have had some common goals. Bigger is better. Different is better.
More colors are desirable. So looking at the colored illustrations, we can see all of these trends in
the early 19th century literature. As time went on some breeders/growers became more discerning
and started to formulate specific traits or conditions which breeders should strive to attain. Broader/
wider petals became an almost universal goal.
In 1841 in the Gardener’s Chronicle, the following instructions were given for judging the "perfect"
pelargonium. "The flower should be large, and composed of broad … petals, free from crumple or
unevenness, … smooth on their edges, … round … Its colour, whether rich or delicate, should
possess great clearness; the under petals must be free from veins, and the upper petals should have
a large dark spot running to the bottom … as destitute as possible of a small white feather. …
Finally, it is essential that the leaves should be large, delicate, and … have a … truss … of several
In 1848, Edward Beck, one of the primary proponents of desirable traits, wrote frequently and often
exhibited the plants he was producing. His thoughts are abbreviated here: "… breadth of petals, …
roundness and fullness of flower … habit should be moderately dwarf, with stout foliage, and short
stalks to the leaves, so as to form a compact bushy plant … truss of at least four flowers … The
flower should be of good size, say two inches in diameter, composed of five petals, two upper and
three lower ones, and these should form a circle. They should be quite free from curl or crumple,
stout and velvety in texture, with perfectly smooth edges … with no indentations; … The ground-
colour of the petals should be clear and pure. The whole flower should be free from veins …
The spot should be very decided at the base, extending upwards, and terminating, in a margined
flower, with … a distinct edging. … When a flower has a white eye, it should be dense and pure;
… Prolific bloom is indispensable, and novelty of colour is of much more importance than
accuracy of form; large flowers also are in more request than the medium size" (Florist, 1848, p. 302).
Regional preferences also became apparent and the English pelargonistes went in different
directions from the French and German growers. So while the English breeders sought rounder,
flatter flowers with pure, clear colors, the continental growers liked more spots and vein patterns
on their flowers. Then followed decades of illustrations of flat, circular/round flowers and eventually
in the 20th century, the more fanciful, frilly, ruffled flowers came into vogue.
Various sub-categories were devised for the nascent regal plants and florist, show, decorative and
fancy categories were recognized. Wilkinson (The Passion for Pelargoniums) chronicles some of
these trends in her book. Several modern authors have commented on the contributions of the German
hybridizers in the early 20th century and the creation of plants with larger, more colorful flowers on more
compact, branching plants. In truth, the initial strides had occurred 75 years earlier. The job was to refine
and elaborate on what was there.
Today other criteria are important to the commercial growers so compact, highly branched, disease
and insect resistant plants with a long blooming season have taken precedence over larger flowers
with distinctive and unique colors and floral patterns on plants with landscape potential. The categories
of the 19th century have given way to the plants available commercially today – with "trending" colors
and long-lasting flowers. The role of the collectors has declined and the role of the commercial
breeders and growers and their requirements rule the geranium world today. With the decline of
local, regional, private growers and the ascendance of "big box" marketers, the geranium world
has changed dramatically.