Gardeners mean different things when they refer to a plant as a geranium, but the name almost universally conjures up the citrus-rose scent that is incorporated into so many bath and beauty products, as well as all-natural mosquito repellents. Plants in the botanical genus Geranium have a mildly pleasing fragrance, but those that go by the common name of geranium are considered Pelargoniums, botanically. And it is in the latter bunch that we find some of the most intriguing of this large and ubiquitous group of bedding plants: the scented geraniums.
Just as plant breeders have managed to coax extraordinary color combinations and striated patterns in the leaves and flowers of everything from tulips and roses to English ivy, horticulturalists have found the raw genetic material for an astonishing array of scents in certain species of Pelargonium. Rose, lemon, strawberry, coconut, apple, almond, pine, cedar, eucalyptus, nutmeg, musk and dozens of other varieties are available, including a few with decidedly unpleasant smells, like rotting fish. It is the rose-scented geranium that has most captured our hearts, however, with the United States importing over 60 tons of the essential oil distilled from the leaves of the plant each year (a few drops of the oil is enough to scent a room).
Scented geraniums had their heyday in Victorian England, when they were major players in the 'language of flowers', a trend of wearing small scented bouquets — called 'tussie-mussies' or 'nosegays' — that conveyed secret meanings to those initiated in the art form. The most famous reference on the subject lists meanings for 10 different types of scented geraniums, ranging from 'steadfast piety' to 'true friendship'.