If lengthening daylight hours and warming weather have you dreaming about what’s next for your native plant garden, how about wild geranium (Geranium maculatum)? The word “geranium” may bring to mind a ball of red flowers on a stiff stem in a pot on your mom’s window sill, but this little perennial is no potted plant. Native to a wide swath of eastern North America, it is a lovely flowering plant generally found in woodland areas that can be used as a groundcover or tucked in among other natives in your shade garden.
Mature plants are about a foot and a half tall. The leaves are about five inches across, and are divided deeply into five lobes with sublobes. The stem, leaves, petioles, and buds are all slightly hairy.
Over a six- to seven- week period in late spring to early summer, wild geranium produces loose clusters of delicate pink to lavender five-petaled flowers. After blooming, the flower pistil at the end of the stem lengthens into a beak-like seed pod—the reason for the plant’s common name of cranesbill. In fact, geranos is the Greek word for “crane.” Some other common names for the wild geranium include alumroot, shameface, and sailor’s knot.
The wild geranium prefers moist, loamy soil and light shade to partial sun; if planted in full sun, it requires a lot of moisture. Plants spread by rhizome as well as by seed, but do not generally become invasive. The seeds have two ways of arriving at their germination sites: the spring-loaded seed capsule (check out the pic) ruptures and launches its contents up to 30 feet away; then each seed has a little tail, or awn, that straightens out when wet and curls up when dry, giving the seed the potential to creep short distances from wherever it lands!
Wild geranium foliage begins to look a little peaked late in the season, so it’s good to plant it among neighbors with showier foliage, like Jacob’s ladder or woodland sedges. Pollinators include many types of bees, syrphid and dance flies, digger wasps, and several types of butterflies and skippers. And speaking of pollen, while other wildflowers produce yellow, orange, or white pollen, some wild geranium pollen is bright blue—you’ll have to look closely to observe this unusual trait.
According to the St. Olaf website, early native Americans used various parts of the wild geranium to treat thrush, bleeding, burns, sore throats, hemorrhoids, gonorrhea, diarrhea, and cholera. The astringent properties of its roots were particularly valued. And for unwitting victims of a love charm, a tea brewed from wild geranium roots would counteract the spell.
So if you’re looking for a colorful, easy-to-care-for native perennial, why not wild geranium? Unless, of course, you want that love charm to work!
Photo of flower by Frank Bramley, courtesy of the New England Wildflower Society.
Wild Geranium: Geranium maculatum
Syrphid flies: Syrphidae
Dance flies: Empididae
Digger wasps: Sphex
Butterflies and Skippers: Lepidoptera