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Geranium Phaeum

What you May Not Know about the Geranium Phaeum

Dark, brooding colors have earned the name of “mourning widow” for the perennial plant geranium phaeum.  Add to their dusky coloration the fact that they do well in partial shade and a full understanding of this name and another, the “black widow” is realized.

Geraniums remain as some of the most popular flowers in gardens across America.  Popular in hanging baskets and container plantings as well as landscape plants, there are numerous types of the flowering plant that are grown as annuals, but there is also a perennial variety.  Many people are unaware of this fact, and it may be due to the fact that it is often marketed as a “dusky cranesbill”; a name that is derived from the similarity that the seed pods generated by the plant bears to the bill of the long legged bird.  A truly hardy variety of the geranium family, the mourning widow geranium exhibits perennial behavior in USDA zones 5 to 9. 

Looming well above the foliage of the plant, the flowers of the geranium phaeum are one of its most distinctive features.  Slender stems extend beyond the mounded mass of toothy lobed leaves to heights of up to two feet, branching out with smaller stems along the sides and at the top to offer the cuplike blossoms.  The dark purple of the petals may appear almost black in areas; hence, the term “mourning widow” has become attached to the plant.  Blooming of this hardy geranium takes place in late spring to early summer in most zones, with the possibility of a reblooming period toward the end of summer.  As a landscape plant, this geranium is resistant to deer; an advantage for areas with high populations of the animal as their grazing habits can soon wipe out a garden.  The plant is susceptible, however, to the Asiatic garden beetle and the four lined plant bug and must be treated to protect its foliage from these insects.  In addition, problems such as powdery mildew, mosaic virus and leaf spots may develop in the right conditions.  These threats are not overwhelming, and in general the geranium phaeum is considered to be a fairly resistant plant to pests and diseases. 

Whether it is called the mourning widow geranium, the black widow geranium or the dusky cranesbill, this plant finds favor with most gardeners.  Easily grown from rhizomes, new plants can be propagated using cuttings from existing plants, dividing the rhizomes or by collecting seeds disbursed from the seed pods in the fall.  The plant appreciates an evenly moist soil, especially in the hotter climates or during the warmer periods of summer.  It is also beneficial for the soil to be well drained with an organic mix worked into it for maximum nutrition.  The amount of sun required by the perennial depends on the climate zone in which it is grown; when grown in the cooler areas, the geranium should be planted in full sun.  In the warmer climates, partial shade is well tolerated.

Some gardeners have reported that the lifespan of the geranium phaeum can reach up to 10 years; a true testament of a hardy perennial.   The best of conditions will, of course, yield the best results.  To keep the continuum of the plant’s life at its optimal levels, it should be dug up every 2 to 3 years for the purpose of dividing the rhizome.  Be sure to properly space the plants when replanting to allow maximum growth potential of the maturing plant. 

Although called the “mourning widow”, the perennial geranium is anything but sad.  Striking in its dark beauty and popular in its easy maintenance, the geranium phaeum just may become the most favored of all geranium varieties.



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