A close look at cranesbills
Amateur Gardening|May 15, 2021
Whether you want to plant up a shady area or smother some weed growth, there is a cranesbill, or hardy geranium, that will meet the task, says Anne Swithinbank
Anne Swithinbank

THERE cannot be many gardens without one or two hardy geraniums or cranesbills, so-called because of their long, beak-like seed capsules. The genus consists of 300 species from temperate regions of the world and we have a few garden-worthy species growing wild in the UK, including the magenta-flowered bloody cranesbill (G.sanguineum), favouring mainly limestone areas, and the ethereal wood cranesbill (G. sylvaticum) whose loose, upright habit suits the wilder parts of a garden.

Well-established clumps tend to be long-lived, and if you take on a mature garden you might find Geranium x johnsonii ‘Johnson’s Blue’ (a hybrid between meadow cranesbill and G.himalayense) or mats of French cranesbill G. endressii topped by tiny pink flowers. These stalwarts are still worthy, but are now rivalled by a wide choice of plants including sterile hybrids which, unable to set seed, tend to produce larger, longer-lasting flowers over many months. Yet the likes of ‘Rozanne’ and ‘Patricia’ are still popular with bees and other pollinating insects.

When choosing a new cranesbill, we are usually keen for it to perform a particular role. This could be colonising a difficult dry, shady area (I’d go for mourning widow G. phaeum var. phaeum ‘Samobor’ or perhaps the ravishing dusky lilac-flowered G. x monacense ‘Claudine Dupont’).

Container living

To smother weed growth, opt for a cultivar of G. macrorrhizum, and as playmates for roses the purple-veined white blooms of G. himalayense ‘Derrick Cook’ are fun. Hardy geraniums are not keen on long-term container living, but ‘Azure Rush’ (a sport of ‘Rozanne’) will fill a pot with a long season of blue, white-centred flowers.

Do fall in love with the soft-pink blooms of G. sanguineum var. striatum or the neat, puckered, sage-green leaves of G. renardii and not care that the white flowers with whiskery markings don’t last very long. I find the flower shapes and foliage fragrance of neat G. x cantabrigiense hybrids admirable, but have an aversion to cranesbills with double flowers. To extend the season of interest beyond flowering, the leaves of lilac-flowered ‘Fay Anna’ unfurl a pinkish gold and turn red for autumn and the blue flowers of G. pratense ‘Midnight Reiter’ are outlived by a season of dark-purple foliage.

9 reliable cranesbills

3 for dry shade

Geranium nodosum ‘Blueberry Ice’ Native to the Pyrenees, knotted cranesbills are a dry shade favourite, their informal growth spreading by rhizomes. This cultivar bears flowers of glowing violet-pink against glossy foliage from June to October. HxS: 24x20in (60x50cm).

Geranium macrorrhizum ‘White-ness’ AGM Sometimes known as ‘Mount Olympus White’, this evergreen big-root cranesbill suppresses weeds with a low mound of aromatic foliage. There are pure-white from May-July. Avoid waterlogged soils. HxS: 12x24in (30x60cm).

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