Geranium palmatum versus Geranium maderense

Three years ago when I started The Frustrated Gardener this was my first ‘proper’ post. For some reason it has gone on to be one of the most popular articles I have ever written, so I have taken the liberty of updating and reissuing it. I continue to grow both species alongside one another, sometimes losing Geranium maderense in cold and wet winters. They always return from seed, often in the most surprising places, so provided you can get plants to flower once, you will never be without. I am currently bringing on two white cultivars of Geranium maderense named ‘Alba’ and ‘Guernsey White’. The latter were grown from seed and ‘Alba’ was bought from a nursery. When they do bloom, which I hope will be next year, it will be interesting to compare the flowers and see which is the purer white. I’d love to hear your experience of growing these lovely Mediterranean geraniums and any top tips for cultivating them successfully.

Geranium maderense "Guernsey White", The Watch House, April 2016
Geranium maderense “Guernsey White” finally flowers in early April 2016

Madeiran natives Geranium maderense and Geranium palmatum are often confused by nurseries and gardeners, but are actually very different in terms of habit and hardiness. Both are large beasts, possessing gorgeous, fern-like foliage and sprays of pink flowers that go on for several weeks. Neither enjoys being baked, preferring light shade in the afternoon and moist but well-drained soil. They detest wet which, when combined with cold, can prove fatal. However, there the similarities end. Geranium maderense likes to prop its heavy crown up on a pylon of red-tinged leaf stalks (so don’t chop them off!) and frequently reaches 6ft across in my garden. It will mercilessly smother anything beneath it, so I site plants where they can spread their wings or take the consequences. After flowering, which takes 2-3 years from sowing, the whole plant generally dies. Occasionally offsets appear at the base of the trunk-like stem. They are often weak in comparison to the main plant and I find it’s better to start again with a vigorous young seedling.

The foliage of Geranium palmatum is apple green, without maderense's red tinge
The foliage of Geranium palmatum is apple green, without maderense’s red tinge

 

Geranium palmatum has a more perennial habit (my oldest plant is 9 years old and has a trunk 2ft long), producing a wide Catherine-wheel of flowers rather than Geranium maderense‘s mushroom cloud of blossom. The leaves are slightly smaller and a fresher apple green, but still sprout from a thickened stem. They look their best early in the year, but any tired leaves can be snapped off with a sharp tug to the left or right which gives a neater appearance. I have never lost a plant of Geranium palmatum to cold, but in conditions that are not well enough drained they can be short-lived. Attempts to grow them in London where the soil is heavy clay have not been successful, yet they relish the raised beds in our seaside garden.

The flowers of Geranium maderense fade from fierce magenta to antique pink in bright sunshine
The flowers of Geranium maderense fade from fierce fuchsia to antique pink in bright sunshine

 

There is no question that Geranium maderense is the more glamorous and desirable of the sister species: the single flowers are fuller, more robust, brighter pink and produced in far greater profusion than G. palmatum. You will often spot Geranium maderense cultivated in greenhouses and there is a reason for that – it does not like any degree of frost. A light chill will at best cause damage to the leaves, which proceed to droop and yellow, but this in itself does not kill the plant as long as the crown is protected. What seems to put the final nail in the coffin is rot, which sets in to the damaged tissue as soon as the weather warms up again in spring. In some years all of my plants have survived snow and ice only to keel over and die in March, when the hollow stems perish. It’s enough to make a grown man cry. Another enemy, if you choose to grow Geranium maderense in a pot, is the vine weevil, whose grubs will quickly demolish the modest root system and cause the plant to collapse. This is always a tragedy, so I take precautions by using a liquid vine weevil treatment. Container cultivation is fine if it’s the only option, but plants never grow as large or flower so spectacularly.

The flower stalks of Geranium maderense are covered in sticky pink hairs
The flower stalks of Geranium maderense are covered in sticky pink hairs

It’s the atomic cloud of Barbie-pink blossom that gives Geranium maderense the edge, supported by a scaffold of old leaf stems. Flowering begins tight within the leaf rosette but the hairy stems rise quickly up into a cone and then finally fan out to form a huge ball of flowers 3-4ft across. These are very attractive to bees and butterflies and the end result is something akin to one of those fabulous lady’s swimming caps from the 1960s.

The flower heads of Geranium maderense can measure 4ft across
The flower heads of Geranium maderense can measure 4ft across

The show will continue into mid summer before the plant, exhausted, begins to collapse and die. During that time the seed pods lengthen, dry out and split in dry weather, distributing seed to every corner of the garden. I’d wager than every pot that leaves my garden goes with at least one little geranium seedling nestling beneath the main event, spreading my love for these plants far and wide. For colder gardens I’d always recommend starting with Geranium palmatum, but if you want the real deal and can hold your nerve then go for the G. maderense and be prepared to be dazzled.

The first flowers of Geranium maderense emerge from the foliage before exploding into a giant mop-head of bloom
The first flowers of Geranium maderense emerge from the foliage before exploding into a giant mop-head of bloom

 

Where to see Geranium maderense – you don’t need to venture quite as far as Madeira to see Geranium maderense, although this may be more fun than some of my suggestions. The Eden project grows masses of them in their Mediterranean biome and, also in Cornwall, they are plentiful in the Isles of Scilly where frost is rare. In London, The Chelsea Physic Garden displays plants in its Atlantic Islands glasshouse and Kew and Wisley cultivate them too.

Geranium maderense "Guernsey White", The Watch House, April 2016
Geranium maderense “Guernsey White”

 

Where to buy Geranium maderense – if you have the patience to grow from seed (and they are easy-peasy, even for beginners), then the standard pink version is available from Thompson and Morgan and Jungle Seeds. The only place I know that offers ‘Guernsey White’ is Seeds of Distinction. For plants, Cornwall is a good place to search as they are more frequently grown outside there. Car boot sales such as those at Hayle and Rosudgeon have good plant stalls with local favourites. The Lost Gardens of Heligan was offering large plants of Geranium maderense for a good price on my last visit this year. Plants can be purchased mail order from Burncoose and the variety known as ‘Alba’ from Special Plants (also as seed).

Geranium palmatum at the foot of our front steps
Geranium palmatum at the foot of our front steps

 

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55 thoughts on “Geranium palmatum versus Geranium maderense

      1. Yes you right… but I think we need to understand that many plants are really sensitive… maybe there are someone even more sensitive than humans… I don’t know you but I hate the cold… so I’m just guessing about these poor plants… 😦

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Pity I didn’t know about these before I visited the Lost Gardens of Heligan. But then I’m not ready to try the yet. They sound a good idea for my from garden though 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Hello Margaret. They will germinate at almost any time given the right conditions. I would start them off no later than March in pots on a very bright windowsill or in a greenhouse so that they are large enough to be planted out in late May or June. They will grow extremely fast if it’s not too hot and dry. This way you’ll have substantial plants by the time winter arrives. However it doesn’t matter how large they are – even a touch of frost will damage them. If you have an unheated or frost-free greenhouse that might be better.

        In terms of seed storage, the same rules as for most other seed types – a cool, dry, dark place. Dan

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  2. Hi there – this article really made me smile.

    I have a couple of maderense which I purchased as young plants and which have yet to flower….but I also now have hundreds of palmatum which I grew from seed believing they were madarense ……and which now seed all over my garden.

    If you have some genuine spare madarense seed I’d be glad to try them out.

    Kind regards

    David Buchanan-Cook (Helensbank Garden)

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  3. I discovered your site about geranium madarense and realised that the little seedlings I’ve potted up to give to friends from a plant bought 2-3 years is a geranium palmatum. Very disappointing. If you still have the genuine one or seeds please let me know. Michelle

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Michelle. I am sure I can spare you some seed. Please e-mail your details to thefrustratedgardener@gmail.com and I’ll send you some as soon as I am back from China. Geranium palmatum is a perfectly lovely plant, and will see you through winters that G. maderense won’t, but in terms of flower power there is no comparison. I am sure your friends will appreciate your gifts nevertheless 🙂

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  4. OK – I’m slightly confused now. I have grown G. maderense which appeared in a pack of mixed geranium seed from the RHS! I am now growing what I confidently believed to be G. palmatum, until I read your comment about palmatum not having the reddish tint to the leaves. Mine all have the tint – but are proving hardy as they have been left out all winter – albeit a mild one, but we have had frosts. They are still in pots waiting to be planted out this year if you think this makes any difference. Any clues?

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  5. I’ve been trying to grow Maderense Geraniums for 5 or 6 years now when living in Penzance but kept losing them in the winter. Am now in Somerset and when visiting Boconnoc Flower Show last weekend I bought a Geranium Palmatum which I hadn’t come across before, having read the label and some of your comments I’m hopeful of being successful with this one!

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  6. Here in Guernsey, Channel Islands, both geranium madarense pink and the white “Guernsey” grow well and freely self seed everywhere.

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      1. They look lovely in wild hedgerows and along cliff paths. They’ve spread around my garden and even my driveway but easy enough to weed out where they aren’t wanted.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Very envious of your success with geranium maderense. Have been trying for some years but the east midlands is a shade cold. On the other hand geranium palmatum love it with plants up to four feet high. I get my seed for maderense from Tresco and the palmatum just from self sets

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    1. I can’t offer any hope with maderense I’m afraid Steve. It just isn’t hardy and we lose ours in a cold winter. These are rare in Broadstairs but we endured several years where every plant was destroyed and I almost gave in. G. palmatum is a much better bet and the foliage is a lovely fresh green.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Some came through last winter but they can take a couple of years before flowering. This year’s plants are all in the most sheltered locations eg button of a wall

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      2. Very wise. I have done better planting mine beneath trees where the ground is drier in winter, snow is less likely to settle on the crowns and there is cool shade in summer. I noticed on Tresco they looked much lusher in woodland positions.

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  8. I am so glad to have found this site! I moved to this location (Arcata CA USA) 8 years ago and have been trying to figure out what has been growing wildly in the garden ever since. Local nurseries have been no help. This explains so much why some plants do so well and some just re-seed and die. But every year enough survive to put on an incredible display. I had thought they neded more water but this proves I was only trying to kill them. Without success thank goodness! Thanks again.

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  9. I bought a 3-in pot of Geranium Palmatum from the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall back in June of this year. It was in flower, but quite a spindly plant. Once we planted it in our front garden it has really taken off and is currently still producing new leaves. My wife is considering moving it to a larger space; can it be transplanted successfully, and would the spring be a suitable time. Also can it be divided eventually.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Hello, in reference to “Canary Island natives Geranium maderense and Geranium palmatum are often confused by nurseries and gardeners, but are actually very different in terms of habit and hardiness.”
    Both Maderense and palmatum are endemic to Madeira, so if you do find them in the Canaries they’ve been introduced.
    (i know this has nothing to do with gardening, just a slight correction).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There´s no G. maderense or G. palmatum intruduced in the Canary Islands. There is another species more: “Geranium reuteri” endemic to the Canaries.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Lovely article and photos. I have just germinated some Geranium palmatum seeds from the RHS. As I don;t have much space in my garden, could they be grown in pots? Or another suggestion would be some low raised beds on top of a paved drive?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, they can be grown in pots. In fact, once you have flowered your Geranium palmatum you will probably find they plant themselves in all your pots and any gaps in the paving. However I would recommend using the largest pots you can find space for to allow the plants to reach their full potential. Geranium palmatum does not prop itself up as it grows, as G. maderense does, so might also need a short cane to keep it upright. Low raised beds also sound ideal, but beware the spread of the foliage could be 4ft or more!

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  12. Hello from New Zealand where I have just cut off the seed heads of Madrense Alba. The plant has gone yellow and the stems of the spent flowers are sticky. A few are brown and ripe but the majority are yet to ripen. I’ve put them into twin walled paper bags, Kleensaks, for the seeds to dry, ripen and fall out as I am going on instinct. Any advice for me?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hmmmm …..well ….. in my experience the seeds ripen and the pods they are in explode, sending them everywhere long before the plant finally dies. The stickiness is slightly unpleasant but normal. I wonder if you have had some wet weather which has caused the plant to collapse at the root or has prevented the seed from ripening fully? Geranium maderense produces loads of seed so hopefully you have enough to foster the next generation. Good Luck!

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      1. A couple of years have gone by and I’m now quite experienced with G Madrense Alba seeds. I collect the flower heads, heads down, in a twin wall paper rubbish bag. I put them in a very warm location and listen to the seed heads popping. It takes at least three weeks. There are a great many seeds at the bottom of the bag. Best germination trick is to soak them in hot (not boiling) water overnight. Drain off water, allow to air dry and sow them in round deroma clay containers. Germination rate this way is stellar. Why they like the shallow rounds I do not know but I have tried other, deeper containers and they aren’t as vigorous. They are cool germinators, fourteen degrees Celsius in our spring weather is optimum. All my friends are growing it now. The wildings still appear near the parent plant and in crevices.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. Hello Dan, just re read this post after a spot of freezing gardening and think I might have the G Madrenese seedlings growing aming some cuttings I was given. Would you have a minute to check them..please?

    Liked by 1 person

  14. This is an awesome article! So glad you reposted it! I have the madrense and iam hoping it will bloom this year. It is in a big pot because we are cold and wet in winter. Iam going to the island of Maderia and the Scilly islands the later half of March and so excited to see!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lucky you!! Both places will be wonderful I am sure Jeanne. The Geranium maderense in my garden have been finished off by the snow. I have some indoors, some in the greenhouse and some in the garage which I will use to replenish the garden when spring arrives. You are wise to keep yours in a pot, although they are never as magnificent as when they grow in the ground. Then they can reach 6-8ft across!

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  15. Aaargh! Just read this very interesting post as I have a G. maderense in a large (very heavy) stone pot in my garden in west Cornwall. Not flowered since purchase in 2016, so I was hoping for flowers this year. However, the snow and minus temperatures may well have scuppered my/its chances. Been out to have a look and the leaves are a little droopy. Crossing fingers xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Jude! Yes, you should have had flowers this year. You may get lucky. The leaves will probably turn yellow. If they do, remove the leaf part only and not the stem, which will form a prop for the vast flower head. If the centre is Black you might be disappointed, but do try again. West Cornwall is one of the few places in the UK where you have a good chance of success outdoors. Dan

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks Dan. I shall keep my eye on it. Otherwise I’ll have to go buy another plant and this time keep it in a pot I can lift into the conservatory at any sign of frost!

        Liked by 1 person

  16. Hi Dan, so I grew either G. mad or G.palm a while back and ended up with seedlings scattered about. I found one a couple of years ago and stuck it in one of the holes in a concrete block. It did well last year and now this year it’s enormous and flowering! It stayed out all through last winter in the open in Lydney, River Severn just North of the bridge. Will take a picture for ID please 🙂

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    1. Once flowering it’s very easy to tell the difference. If the flowers are appearing on lots of separate stems arising from the leaf rosette and splaying out at a 45º angle, then you have G. palmatum. This is the hardier one. If the flowers form a single ball of blossom ontop of a ‘trunk’, with sticky flower stems and leaf stems pointing to the ground and potentially starting to turn yellow, this is G. maderense. The latter will die after flowering but not before producing a gazillion seeds. The former will keep on going, resestablishing a nice rosette of leaves over the autumn and winter. It will also produce seeds if you allow it to. They come up like cress in my garden! Do let me know which one you believe it is. Dan

      Liked by 1 person

  17. What an encouraging description of growing the Maderensis. Thanks for sharing your experience. I have taken three leaf cuttings last summer, and they have all rooted. We watch this space. I am still waiting for the parent plant to flower this year for the first time!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. We have Geranium maderense in a small back garden in Broadstairs. I planted it over 2 years ago and it is yet to flower. It is over 4feet across and looks in splendid health. My question is,has anyone any experience of moving a plant of this size and was it successful.We will be moving house soon and I would like to take it with us but if that will cause its demise I would rather leave for someone else to enjoy should it decide to flower next year.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Pete. You will almost certainly kill it – either quickly or slowly – by moving it. Start again from seed in your new place and you’ll have a big healthy plant in no time. These are not plants that like to be moved or to be grown in pots. Dan

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  19. Hi Dan
    I know this is an old post but I was wondering how you got on with the Guernsey White vs. Alba?
    I have been reasonably successful with the pink although a plant I expected to flower this year didn’t my fault its pot grown and I have neglected the feeding a bit.
    For others reading Great Dixter normally have plants of the pink form at a reasonable price.
    We have missed visiting your wonderful garden this year (no chance of social distancing I know).
    Hope your both keeping well.
    Peter Wilcock

    Liked by 1 person

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