Geranium (Family: Geraniaceae) is a genus of more than 400 herbaceous species. Some geranium species are woods at the base, and others have tubers. They are spread from Eurasia to Americas, and can also be found in New Zealand, Africa, Australia, New Guinea and other islands.
Geraniums have basal leaves and flowering stems that carry smaller leaves. Depending on the species, the height of the geranium plant can range between 30 and 180 cm. The flowers are saucer-shaped and radially symmetrical. They can be pink, white, purple or bluish. The plants continuously divide the rhizomes below or at the level of the soil surface (a property known as clonality).
The word geranium comes from the Greek word γέρανος (géranos) for ‘crane’, due to the resemblance of the plant’s fruit to the beak of a crane bird. The most popular common name of the geranium flower is cranesbill.
Geranium Flower Symbolism
From Islamic to Christian to Scandinavian traditions, geraniums occurs frequently. The geranium flower symbolism is associated to gods, saints and many desirable attributes. The geranium flower was a symbol of prosperity in Egypt, longevity in Japan, and immortality in China.
In the language of flowers, the true geranium is rich in flower symbolism. They are attributed the powers of love, peace, healing, elegance and spirituality. They mostly have desirable symbolizing meanings, including fertility, health, joy, protection, frustrations passing away, and true friendship.
The geranium flower is a component of many magical spells. The root of geranium was worn around the neck for protection. Geranium tea was consumed as a love potion. Brushing leaves of rose geraniums onto windows and doorknobs secured the house against intrusion.
However, in certain situations and contexts, certain geraniums can also symbolize envy, deceit and folly. Most of these negative connotations were attributed to the geranium mainly throughout the Victorian era. Because the geranium flowers have a simple and light appearance, they also became a symbol of foolishness and stupidity. The real reason was the strong class dimension of gardening at that time. Growing potted geranium flowers (especially on the terrace) was labelled as ‘horticultural bourgeoisie’ and a sign of ‘crudeness and thoughtless of taste’. Geranium became a symbol of industrial mass culture.
The Sacred Plant of Prophet Mohammed
According to a legend, the origin of the geranium flower is related to an incident from the life of Prophet Mohammed. After washing his shirt, he threw it upon a common mallow plant to let it dry. Upon this sacred contact, the weed turned into a geranium flower.
A slightly different version of the legend says that the prophet Mohamed went to the mountain to pray, and when he returned to the valley, he was bathed in sweat. He removed his shirt and hung it on a simple plant which grew near his tent. When the shirt was dry, he blessed the modest plant for its service. Prophet’s blessings turned the weed into a beautiful geranium flower.
Finally, in a third version of this legend, the weed did not need Prophet’s blessings to undergo a transformation. The plant felt to humbled and honored to be chosen by the Prophet, that it slowly transformed itself into a beautiful rose geranium.
Saint Robert’s Geranium
In the course of religious conversion, Christian missionaries often replaced native plant names by the names of Christian saints and martyrs. This is the origin of the name Geranium robertianum, attributed to Saint Robert. Early writers referred to this flower as Sancti Ruperti Herba.
Intriguingly, there is a great deal of ambiguity regarding the actual identity of Robert. The most widely accepted theory is that the plant was named after Saint Rupert, a Franciscan evangelist from Salzburg, Austria. Regarded as the apostle of Bavaria and protector of salt, he died in 715 CE. In Germany, this geranium species was used to cure the Ruprechts-Plage disease, named after Robert, Duke of Normandy. Others suggest that Herb Robert could be a reference to Robert, an 11th century Abbot of Molesne.
Saint Robert’s geranium is known under many common names: wild geranium, red robin, and old maid’s nightcap. This is one of the most popular species of geranium flowers. Its seedpod resembles the week of the stork, leading to a folklore belief that the flower could fulfill a couple’s wish for children (the legend of the stork delivering the babies). The herb was worn as an amulet or placed under the bed, to signal to the spirits a desire for a child.
This geranium species has also been called ‘a stauncher of blood’, due to its property to stop bleeding. However, in West Cumberland, the United Kingdom, Geranium robertianum has also been considered an ill-omen plant, and called death-come-quickly. Children were advised against plucking this flowers. One reason for the unfavorable reputation of the flower in this geographical region was people’s fear of snakes. Oftentimes, snakes were seen hidden among the stems of this flower.
A Symbol of God Odin’s Grace
In Teutonic and Scandinavian mythology, the Geranium sylvaticum flower was dedicated to Odin, the god of wisdom, poetry and war. This geranium flower was known under the name Odin’s Favor. One more geranium species, Geranium pratense, known under the name Gratia Dei, was a flower of Odin. Gratia Dei is a translation into Latin of the German name Gottesgnade, which originates from an older word meaning Odin’s Grace, or Odin’s Flower. Long ago in Island, a blue dye was produced from the geranium plant. This was the color of the robes of priests and kings, and warriors. According to the tradition, this color was representative of the mantle and the eyes of Odin.
The Crane Birds That Saved Humanity on Mount Gerania
An ancient Greek myth tells that Zeus, the god of the sky, was once fed up with all the evil acts committed by humans. He decided to send a flood to the earth to cleanse it. The apocalypse was averted, thanks to a flock of cranes. The cranes warned Megarus, the son of Zeus and a Sithnid nymph, of his father’s plan. Megarus reached the heights of a mountain and escaped the deluge. The mountain became known as Gerania or Crane Hill.
Pink Geranium Flower Meaning
Pink geraniums are flowers of romance and gentle love. They also symbolize femininity and motherly aspects of love.
White Geranium Flower Meaning
According to a traditional belief, the white geranium a powerful protection plant. It is said that snakes and flies would never go near white geraniums.
White geraniums symbolize innocence, purity and celebrations. They also promote fertility.
Violet or Bluish-Purple Geranium Flower Meaning
The purple geranium flower is a symbol of sophistication, nobility and style. This flower conveys the messages of admiration and adoration towards someone.
Red Geranium Flower Meaning
Contrary to the common belief, red geranium flowers are not real geraniums. The red-flowered species is actually a pelargonium. Most common red cultivar is Pelargonium x hortorum. In the Wiccan belief system, red geraniums, when planted near the doorway, can ward off illness and can ‘sense’ the presence of strangers.
Most commonly, red geraniums represent feelings of love, passion and romantic attachment.
Interesting Facts and Characteristics of the Geranium Flower
Scented Geranium Flowers: In spite of their name, scented geraniums belong to a different genus, Pelargonium. Geraniums and pelargoniums are both in the Family Geraniaceae. This Family consists of three genera — the true geraniums, the erodiums, and the pelargoniums. Scented geraniums are mostly native to South Africa. Europeans discovered them in South Africa in the early 1600s, and first introduced to Europe by William A. van der Stel in 1794. Scented geraniums are classified as rose-scented, mint-scented, fruit-scented, pungent-scented, spice-scented and others.
In the symbolic language of the flowers popular during the Victorian time period, each scented geranium had a different meaning. The message of the lemon-scented variety was an ‘unexpected meeting’. The apple-scented meant ‘present preference’. The pungent-scented one conveyed the message of a ‘disappointed expectation’. The message of the nutmeg-scented geranium was ‘expecting a meeting’.
There are notable morphological differences between true geraniums and pelargoniums. While real geraniums have regular, identical and mostly five-petalled flowers, the flowers of pelargoniums are irregular, with the two upper petals differ in size and shape from the lower three. In 1773, Johann Jacob Dilenius introduced the name pelargonium (Greek word from stork) to distinguish these flowers from the real geraniums.
In the 1840s, French colonies, including Algeria, developed a geranium oil industry. At the end of the 19th century, the French also brought geraniums to Tamil Nadu in India.
Medicinal Use of Geranium Flowers: Geraniums have been widely used in traditional herbal practice. In the Middle Ages, the Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus wrote that the geranium plant has cardio-tonic and anti-depressive properties. The root of the Geranium maculatum plant, a North American variety, has been used by Naive Americans to treat various health conditions. Maori used Geranium molle, also known under the common name dove’s foot cranesbill, to make lotion for the treatment of open wounds. In Wales, Geranium robertianum was used to treat gout. In Ireland, the same species was used as a diabetes remedy. Geranium pratense was used in the Scottish Highlands to stop the bleeding after the removal of a tooth.
Geranium thunberghii, known in Japan as Gen-no-shoko, is used the traditional Japanese medicine Kampo to treat diarrhea cataract, liver and hematological disorders. Geranium aconitifolium, known as palto in Ladakh, India, is used by the traditional amchi healers, to make a paste for soothing insect bites and treat ulcers. The Mapuche Ameridians of Chile use an infusion of the Geranium core-core plant to treat fever, shock and cataract.
An etymological curiosity: The root of the word geranium, ‘geranos’, became ‘grus’ is French, and then ‘grue‘ for the crane bird. Interestingly, the French phrase ‘pie de grue’, which translates as ‘the crane’s foot’, got embedded in the word pedigree.
Geranium flowers in popular culture: ‘I love geraniums, bright red geraniums, and every time I see one, I always think of you,’ sang Shirley Temple in the 1947 comedy/romance movie ‘Honeymoon’. ‘The kings of Tyrus, with their convict list are waiting in line for their geranium kiss,’ wrote Bob Dylan in his song ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’.
The Best Time to Gift Someone a Geranium Flower
Geraniums are mostly associated to happiness, health and friendliness. This symbolism has made them a common housewarming gift. One can almost never go wrong when gifting geranium flowers.
However, geraniums of a particular color can make a stronger impact, when gifted at an appropriate occasion. For example, white geraniums are a perfect wedding gift to a bride. Red geraniums can be gifted to a romantic partner, as a statement of passion and love. Gifting violet geraniums is an appropriate way to express respect and admiration towards a senior person, a role model, or somebody who is of a higher social status. Pink geraniums are a perfect gift for a woman of any age, as a more subtle expression kindness and appreciation. Potted geranium flowers continue to be a popular window plant. In June 2020, Tony Louki, the Mayor of Hounslow, UK, launched a campaign called ‘Gift a Geranium’. The campaign invited the local community to gift geranium flowers to nearby care home, as a way of expressing gratitude for their service during the Covid-19 pandemic.