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Rose Scented Geraniums
In nature, there are some plants and flowers that have complex aromas and flavors. Probably the best example of this is wine grapes. Just think of all the words to describe your favorite wines: berry, chocolate, citrus, oaky, grassy. The list is almost endless. In the world of herbs, scented geraniums are similar. While each individual variety may not be so complex, there are enough varieties to allow you to choose just the aromas you are in the mood for. Will it be apple or coconut, peach, apricot cinnamon or pineapple, nutmeg or maybe pink Champagne? With over 230 varieties, there are plenty from which to choose.
Scented geraniums are all actually members of species Pelagornium; they are not true geraniums. Pelagorniums and geraniums are members of the same botanical family, Geramiaceae, and some varieties have similar looking foliage, which probably accounts for the common designation. The name pelagornium and geranium both have Greek roots and refer to the long, bill like seed that each plant produces. Pelagornium means "stork", and geranos means "crane".
Scented geraniums are considered tender perennials. Outside, they wither at the first frost. However, if kept inside, they will continue to thrive and possibly even produce blooms. Scented geraniums are actually well suited for growing in pots or cascading from hanging baskets, since they like their roots to be crowded, but not root bound. Whether indoors or out, they like warm conditions, bright direct sunlight, and good drainage, even preferring to be kept a bit dry. Be careful not to over fertilize them, as too much nitrogen will lessen a plant's fragrance.
When planting scented geraniums in the garden, I like to place them along the edge of a path. This way, as someone walks along the path and brushes up against the leaves, the fragrance is released since it is the leaves that contains the volatile oils, not the delicate flowers. This path side position also allows me quick and easy access to the plants so I can keep them trimmed back. Otherwise, scented geraniums tend to get leggy.
There is a great diversity among the varieties themselves, in the shape of their leaves, the color of their blossoms, blooming time, and intensity of their fragrances. I love one variety of rose scented geranium (Pelargonium graveolens) for its large, lacy snowflake leaf pattern: three lobes of deeply toothed foliage, rich green in color and outlined in ivory. It makes a great garnish for fruit platters or cookie trays. Despite its fancy name, Lady Plymouth, it doesn't have much of a fragrance. By contrast, another of my rose scented geraniums is less decorative. Its leaves are much smaller, and they lack the edging color and the deep grooves. However, it is much more fragrant. The fragrance is strikingly reminiscent of a freshly cut bouquet of roses. Another favorite is lime scented geranium (P.x nervosum). It has very tiny leaves, shaped like curly maple leaves. Their fragrance is sharp and undeniably citrus. An added benefit of the citrus scented geraniums is that they contain citronella, a known mosquito repellent -- a good reason to plant lemon and lime scented geraniums around your garden patio. One other variety I enjoy is peppermint scented geranium (P. tomentosum). Its large, heart shaped fuzzy leaves make a wonderful contrast to the rest of the foliage in the garden, and its strong minty oil makes it a tasty addition to tea.
In the kitchen, scented geraniums are used in the making of sweet syrups to be added to candies or drinks. Rose scented geranium is often used to flavor jellies. Any of the leaves can be steeped in milk to extract their particular flavor (such as nutmeg, cinnamon, or apricot), and then added to custards, puddings, or sauces. Fresh leaves can be added to fruit dishes. Lemon scented geranium is often used whole or chopped to add citrus tones to tea cakes. Float lemon or lime scented geranium leaves in finger bowls.
It is fun to use the leaves to make scented sugars. Just fill a sealable glass jar with alternating layers of sugar and the scented geranium leaves of your choice. Seal the jar tightly and place it in the sunlight for 2 weeks, turning the jar occasionally. Sift out the leaves at the end of the time, and enjoy the scented sugar sprinkled on desserts or used to flavor cookies, cakes or custards.
Scented geraniums have a long history of use, although more for decorative purposes than for culinary use. From their native South Africa they were brought to England in the early 1600's by John Tradescent, botanist and plant "head hunter" for Charles the First of England. The plant he brought back was P. triste, one of the few scented geraniums with fragrant blossoms.
Scented geraniums became popular for use in making perfumes, and soon were cultivated in the warm coastal regions of France and Spain, as well as Algeria and the coast of what was the Belgian Congo.
The colonists brought scented geraniums with them to the new word. Even Thomas Jefferson grew them in his gardens at the White House.
Growing scented geraniums became a popular pastime of the people in Victorian England, where they would raise them in heated greenhouses. This trend continued until 1914 when fuel to heat the green houses was banned due to the war.
Today scented geraniums continue to be used in the making of perfumes. Synthetic rose oil is made using rose scented geraniums. The dried leaves are also used in sachets and potpourri. In aromatherapy rose scented geranium is used for facial steams as it is reputed to have anti-aging effects on the skin. It is also reputed to ease insomnia and have an antidepressant effect.
With so many varieties of scented geraniums available, the best way to choose a variety is to find a well stocked nursery and let your sense of smell lead the way.
Rose Scented Geranium Shortbread
makes 8 wedges
These cookies are rich and buttery, with the delicate floral scent of roses.
12 T. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temp.
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
1 1/2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. rose water*
2 Tbs sugar or scented sugar
8 large rose scented geranium leaves, washed and dried
Cream the butter and confectioner's sugar until light and fluffy. In another bowl, mix the flour and salt. Add this to the butter mixture. Add the rose water and mix well. Gather the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 4 to 6 hours. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and allow it to soften a bit. Butter and flour the bottom of an 8" round baking pan. On waxed paper, pat the dough out to the size and shape of the pan.
Take the geraniums and place them in a circle on the dough, about 1" in from the edge. Press them into the dough. Lay the dough in the pan and pat it out all the way to the edges. Score the dough lightly, dividing it into 8 pie shaped pieces. Sprinkle with the sugar. Refrigerate the dough for another 45 minutes. Preheat the oven to 325ÉF. Bake the shortbread for about 20 minutes or until it just starts to change color. Allow it to cool in the pan. Remove the shortbread from the pan, take the baked leaves off the bottom. Cut into wedges along the marks and serve, garnished with additional rose scented geranium leaves.
*rose water is available in liquor stores, specialty food stores, and Middle Eastern delis.
Linda Gilbert is a Bay Area freelance journalist, a cooking class instructor, and co-owner of a Sonoma catering company, Broadway Catering and Events.