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Book Review by Wayne Handlos, Ph.D.

 

The Passion for Pelargoniums: How they found their place in the garden

by Anne Wilkinson, 2007, Sutton Publishing Ltd.

 

The author, Anne Wilkinson, invites you to buy her book on  www.annewilkinson.net

 

This is a book written by an amateur Pelargonium grower. The more important fact is that the author is also an

historian. This book is a wealth of facts, figures, names, dates, places, stories and scandals. Much of the research

was done in the Royal Horticultural Society’s Lindley Library. The author had access to an amazing amount of

gardening/horticultural/ plant information. The joy of reading something an historian has written is the return to

original (or nearly original) sources - things that were written at the time that the events happened. The pitfall to

this approach is that some original information was confused, muddled and mistaken. This author occasionally

gets caught up in some of this and clarity in her writing does not always result. That said, I would recommend

this book for anyone interested in the history of the origin, introduction and cultivation of Pelargonium species

and cultivars in Europe (but primarily Great Britain and really England). Given the obvious amount of work and

research that went into this book, it will remain an important source of information for years to come.

 

The ‘Contents’ page shows all that is included in this volume: List of Illustration, ‘A Pelargonium Chronology,’

clever chapter headings, Appendices, Notes and Sources, Bibliography, and two indices (one for plants

[species and cultivars] and one for topics and people). On the Contents page the order of these two Appendices

 is reversed. The Pelargonium Chronology gives the year when various events of importance in the history of

Pelargonium occurred. It is a rough outline for what is included in the book and overcomes the jumbled

chronology that results from telling a story and fitting facts into the theme of each chapter. The story telling is well

 done but strict chronology suffers.

 

In lieu of footnotes, each chapter has a “Notes and Sources” section at the end of the book. (For me this

necessitated the use of two bookmarks so I could flip back and forth between the two. Since the notes might be

citations of the original or secondary sources, or sidelights, or elaboration of textual information, I felt the need to

go back and forth

 

The list of illustrations includes references to several kinds of illustrations in the text. These include a center section

of colored plates (beautifully done), black and white images (plants, people, catalog pages, etc.) and illustrated,

boxed insets. Some of this last type are less than useful and should have been rejected by an editor.

 

Chapter 1 – Splendid Curiosities, deals with the introduction of Pelargonium species into Europe and England

from Southern Africa. Pelargonium triste was the first to make it. (around 1620) and Wilkinson tracks its movements

like an unwinding detective story. She also tells us something about the first illustrations of some of the species (P.

triste in 1635) and gives us a first hand look at some of these illustrations and the people who made them possible.

She also tells us about (and shows us) the people who were responsible for the introduction and early cultivation of

Pelargoniums in England. That in itself is a complex and interesting (and sometimes rumor-laden) story.

 

Chapter 2 – Delights for Aristocrats, takes us through the stories of some of the people who could afford to grow these

exotic plants in the English climate. She gives us an idea about the origin of some of the names and the development

of the scientific names of some of these plants. We are also introduced to major botanical figures (Sir Joseph

Banks, for instance) and their support of explorers to the far corners of the globe, as well as the connections between

these various personages.

 

Chapter 3 – The Impudent Frenchman, tells us more about the development of nomenclature surrounding the genus

Pelargonium as separate from Geranium. The impudent Frenchman was Charles L’Heritier who was involved in

questionable dealings with botanical (dried plant) specimens (believe it or not) and Joseph Banks in England. L’Heritier

illustrated (beautifully, in fact) a number of species of Pelargonium but his life ended tragically when he returned to

France  where he was stabbed to death. She tells us more about this scandal which keeps us reading. We get more

information  here about various figures (Sweet, Andrews, Jenkinson, the Earl of Liverpool, and the Marquess of Blandford),

who were interconnected in the story of Pelargonium.

 

Chapter 4 – The First Practical Botanist in Europe is about Robert Sweet who produced five beautifully illustrated volumes

of Pelargoniums between 1820 and 1830. She elaborates on his difficult life story. On the continent the German Leopold

Trattinick (whom Wilkinson calls a rival of Sweet) described and illustrated 400 Pelargoniums in volumes published between

1825 and 1834 of plants grown on the continent. His work parallels what Sweet was doing in England. I would view their works

as complimentary as they were not looking at the same plants but rather at varieties (frequently hybrids) produced

independently in different places.

 

Chapter 5 – The Quest for the Perfect Pelargonium gives us some insights into the development of cultivars in the Victorian

age and the agencies that controlled and suggested directions that development of cultivars should take. We see the rise of

the weekly and monthly publications in newspaper format that formed the basis for much of Wilkinson’s research. This era

saw a decline in the number (and to some extent the quality) of illustrations of the plants being grown.

 

Chapter 6 – The Age of Bedding could be a double entendre but this chapter contains no scandals. Instead she tells us about

the development of plants and plans for elaborate plantings. Here we also learn about the Mystery of the Uniques. The Uniques

form a somewhat distinctive group of hybrids (mostly sterile) of perennial plants well suited to growing in places with a Medi-

terranean climate (but not the British Isles). She hints at the solution to the mystery (proposed way back when) as sterile hybrids

between tetraploid species like P. quercifolium and a diploid species like P. fulgidum. Alas, the plants do well here in California

but were a bust as a bedding plant in England. This was the era of the development of the ‘Scarlet Pelargonium’ also known as

the ‘zonate’ (a term used frequently but not included in her glossary) or horseshoe Pelargonium. Ironically, one of the most popular

cultivars was ‘General Tom Thumb’ (with a delightful story about its name) but it was probably an early ivy-zonal (and generally

sterile) hybrid.

 

Chapter 7- Flights of Fancy takes us through the history of the plants with decorative foliage now commonly called the fancy leaf

 Pelargoniums. She also tells us something about the first appearance of other new and unusual types of Pelargonium

(the ‘oculated’, eyed or phlox types of flowers, very double zonals, the New Life or striped flower types, green flowers and rosebuds).

 

Chapter 8 – Flowers for the Million (why not Millions?) introduces us to the big (British) growers and originators of new cultivars

in the late 19th century and the development of the regals (and the introduction and popularization of the name) as well as the origin

of the Bruant “grand bois” plants which were more tolerant of sun and difficult growing conditions than the zonals which preceded them.

 

Chapter 9 – The Final Flowering of the Nineteenth Century fills in some of the remaining blanks in the Pelargonium story. This was

the time when the black leaf zonals, dwarf, compact or Lilliputian zonals, fringed, frilled or carnation type flowers, cactus or poinsettia

flowers and bird’s egg varieties were developed.

 

Chapter 10 – Demise and Renaissance takes us through the first half of the 20th century, two world wars and the origin

of the Langley Smith hybrids as a major development of a new type of Pelargonium. Renaissance is credited to books

on Geraniums and Pelargoniums in England by Cross (1951) and Clifford (1953, 1958) but they were pre-dated by the

American author and garden writer Helen van Pelt Wilson’s book, The Joy of Geraniums, in 1946. Wilson’s book continued

through several editions and is still readily available. We get a bit of the story of post-WWII developments with

the California regals, Australian stellars, the virus-induced striped flowers from Mexico and net veined leaves from

Australia. No mention is made of contemporary commercial breeders and breeding programs in various countries.

 

Chapter 11 – Regaining the Treasures of the Past was apparently an afterthought and tells us a little about the scented

leaf Pelargoniums but barely scratches the surface.

Throughout the book the author tells us about scientific/botanical and horticultural schemes of classification. While this

is very interesting, these schemes have very different objectives and are not particularly related. She does not really

differentiate between these two kinds of schemes in the text. I think the author struggles with these two concepts and

this, to my mind, is one of the major problems with this volume. From the title of Appendix 1 (Botanical Classification

of Pelargonium Species) one might expect some further explanation of botanical classification. Instead it tells us

how a few species are placed in different Sections within the genus Pelargonium. Appendix 2 is titled ‘Horticultural

Classification and Glossary’. This appendix is not a survey or summary of the different horticultural schemes she mentions

in her various chapters (though she does mention their use) so there is no clarification of these schemes or any historical

perspective about their development. There appears to be a lack of understanding of classification schemes. She

might have sought more help in sorting out these problems. On the other hand, the glossary is a useful addition to the

book and helps us understand what is included in the various groups mentioned in the text.

 

Appendix 3 – List of Suppliers and Organisations, with one exception, is restricted to England. Since her book was

published the one American entry lies in its death throes.

 

In the color illustrations, the captions for 2 and 3 are reversed. The color illustrations also separate the caption for page

142 by eight unnumbered pages. She also adopts an unconventional approach to the citation of cultivar names and the

use of generic names and abbreviations. There are generally accepted rules for how to do this but she adopts her own

quirky pattern. An editor should have overruled her.

 

All in all, this is a good read. It is generally well written and flows nicely. The amount of information is immense and

interesting. Anyone wanting to know more about Pelargoniums would find this a “must read.” There are a few muddled

and confusing sections through the book but overall it is pretty clear what she is writing about. Remember that

this is A book about Pelargoniums but it is not THE book about Pelargoniums.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                 

 

 

                                                                                                                                      

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