pelargonium papilionaceum: geranium papilionaceum, butterfly geranium, Rambossie
Geranium as a perfume and flavouring is very much in vogue. Its complex, warming, astringent notes are being employed by enlightened artisans to infuse everything from chocolate to gin. My favourite summer scent, “Geranium pour Monsieur” by Frederick Malle, combines the eponymous ingredient with cloves, cinnamon, white musk, mint and sandalwood. To spray it on in the morning is like stepping into a humid greenhouse early on a midsummer’s day. It’s the perfect pick-me-up and never fails to get people asking what I’m wearing.
Naturally, the first plant I wanted for my own greenhouse was a scented-leaf geranium. As luck would have it, I found a small cutting of Pelargonium papilionaceum, a South African native, for sale at Marwood Hill last spring. I mistakenly thought it would enjoy a sunny windowsill in the house whilst I refurbished the greenhouse at Polegate Cottage. This quickly dried out the compost and browned the edges of the enormous, rough leaves. I then did what I should have done in the first instance and looked it up on the Internet, only to discover Pelargonium papilionaceum is a plant of forest fringes and cool stream banks. Moved into a shady but warm position it has grown vigorously, throwing fragrant leaves into the greenhouse’s central path for me to brush against.
I find the scent heavenly, others find it harsh. In Afrikaans the common name is “rambossie” referring to the smell of the leaves which some describe as similar to the scent of a he-goat. Oh dear. Now I wonder if people ask what I am wearing for all the wrong reasons! No matter, it pleases me and I still have some friends. And the flowers, which are being produced for the first time this spring, suggest to me little pink fairies with oversized wings. The scent is the main event, but the flowers are a great bonus. In summer I plan to stand my plant outside somewhere shady before I retire it to our new garden room where our guests can comment, favourably or not, on the extraordinary, tangy, dry, spicy, masculine fragrance.
Pelargonium papilionaceum is available from geranium and fern specialist Fibrex Nursery.