top of page
  • gardenhistorygirl

Geraniums (or pelargoniums?) on the windowsill

Updated: Aug 20, 2023


‘Rubens Peale with a Geranium’, painted by his brother, Rembrandt Peale, 1801. National Gallery of Art, Washington, USA – Patrons’ Permanent Fund


I’m constantly surprised - and delighted, by the fascinating little snippets of information or stories I come across while researching my garden history blogs. Whilst writing about Victorian conservatories (yet to be posted), I saw this beautiful early-19th century American painting of young amateur botanist, Rubens Peale, painted by his older, artist brother, Rembrandt (their father, also an artist, having named his four sons after famous painters - the other two being Raphaelle and Titian). And I wondered if there was a reason why the plant was so prominent on the canvas.


Upon delving deeper into the story of this lovely painting, I've discovered the story behind the plant depicted - leading me to look, briefly, at the popularity (and history) of the scarlet pelargonium, said to be Charles Dicken's favourite flower; and the knotty question of why pelargoniums and geraniums are still confused.


And, just to be clear, although the painting's title is Rubens Peale with a Geranium, the plant is, in fact, a pelargonium.


But firstly, not content with writing about garden history, I'm also throwing in some architectural history here, as this painting was used to illustrate American writer, Anne Helen Petersen's on-line blog, The Age of Houseplants, which also discussed the reason we have windowsills. And no, it's not just for pot plants to stand on, or for the family cat to sun itself.


Windowsills - or, if you prefer, window sills...


In her blog, Petersen points out that following the devastation of the Great Fire of London in 1666, new rules were developed to protect against future fires including one, passed in 1708. This new regulation required that all windows be set back at least four inches into the building's brickwork and so, as she puts it - “Enter: the standardised windowsill”. Following on from this, large flush window frames were replaced with small recessed frames, less liable to catch fire, giving grand Georgian buildings their distinctive facades and narrow window frames. Wooden eaves also disappeared in new buildings, and roofs were protected by brick parapets - as can be seen in larger houses from this period.


‘Geraniums and the Old Window’ by Linda Jacobus, 2020

As technology advanced, the design of windowsills (according to Study.com's Window Sill History, Purpose & Design) also protect the floors and walls of our homes from damage – and the tilted surfaces of those on the outside help to direct water away from the walls, as well as preventing the elements from entering the home. If installed correctly, they also provide some thermal control to assist with keeping the home cool when it’s hot, and warm when it’s cold.


During the Victorian period, ornamental plants were just as popular with those from poorer backgrounds and families who didn’t have gardens grew them in pots, using the convenient windowsills (or balconies) to display them. Scarlet geraniums (or, more correctly, pelargoniums) being particularly popular.


Peale's geranium


The reason the plant is so prominent in Rembrandt Peale's (1778-1860) painting is that it depicts Pelargonium inquinans - a parent of our modern bedding pelargoniums, and his brother, Rubens (1784-1865) is holding what's thought to be the first specimen of this variety grown in the US. This plant had arrived in the UK in the early 1700's from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa (via Holland) before being introduced to American horticulture in the mid-1700's.


Pelargonium inquinans

According to Maggie Campbell-Culver, writing in The Origin of Plants, P. inquinans, after arriving on our shores, "hung around patiently waiting to be found a useful role". Its chance finally coming in the 1840's when it was combined with Pelargonium zonale to produce a hybrid with the first bright scarlet blooms so beloved by the Victorian public - and Charles Dickens.


Pelargonium x hortorum, commonly called the 'zonal' or 'garden' geranium, the hybrid between P. zonale and P. inquinans. Image from ‘Favourite Flowers of Garden and Greenhouse’ by Edward Step, Vol. 1, 1896


Rubens' daughter, Mary Jane, writing later in life about the painting (but while both her father and uncle were still alive giving weight to what she had to say about it), confirms that the painting was undertaken "on account of the Geranium which was the first one in this country” and that it was "considered very wonderful – a very fine specimen”. She also referred to it by another of its names - the 'Waterloo geranium' as well as its English name, 'the scarlet-flowered geranium'.


The National Gallery of Art in Washington where Peale's painting is kept, describes the Pelargonium inquinans it depicts: “[its] botanical features include velvety branches, softly textured leaves of five to seven lobes, scarlet flowers with five petals, and a long column of stamens. Its name ‘inquinans’ (Latin for ‘staining’) is said to derive from the fact that its leaves turn a rusty or light brown colour after they have been touched”.


Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew – Herbarium specimen of Pelargonium inquinans dating from 1903


Species of pelargoniums were first imported from South Africa to Europe in the early 18th century, and P. inquinans was recorded growing in the garden of the Bishop of London, Henry Compton, an admirer of exotic plants (and well-known in garden history circles as an avid plant collector) after his death in 1713. An early image of P. inquinans is an engraving from 1732 by German botanist Johann Jakob Dillenius of plants growing in a garden at Eltham, near London.


'Geranium Afric. Aborescens' [Pelargonium inquinans] by Johann Jakob Dillenius from Hortus Elthamensis, 1732 – his account of the plants growing in the garden of Dr. James Sherard

This plant also leads to some other interesting connections with one of my previous blogs, The 'Curious and Noble': Robert James, 8th Baron Petre of Thorndon Hall (1713-1742) which discusses the early trade between the US and UK of American plants involving Lord Petre, English horticulturist and Quaker Peter Collinson, and farmer-cum-plant hunter John Bartram in Philadelphia.


As tropical plants, pelargoniums require a hothouse or greenhouse in colder weather – as Collinson wrote to Bartram in 1760: “I am pleased thou will build a green-house. I will send thee seeds of Geraniums to furnish it. They have a charming variety, and make a pretty show in a green-house; but contrive and make a stove in it, to give heat in severe weather”.

(Of course, Collinson was referring to what we now call pelargoniums!)


Another nice connection, is the fact that a William Logan (also of Philadelphia) acquired seeds of this plant while ordering various vegetable and flower seeds in 1768 from James Gordon’s famous Mile End nursery in London - Gordon having been Lord Petre’s head gardener, who set up his own seed business after his employer’s untimely death.


Pelargoniums in the 19th century


Earlier, I mentioned Charles Dickens' love of the scarlet geranium. According to Dickens’ scholars, he always wore one in his jacket buttonhole during public readings; they adorned his dining table; and dominated the garden in a blaze of colour at his country home, Gad’s Hill Place in Kent. These flowers being, of course, scarlet pelargoniums – the bedding variety derived from P. inquinans and P. zonale.


Charles Dickens in the garden with his two daughters - Maime (Mary) and Kate. Photographer unknown, published 1869. Note the pair of ‘geranium theatres’ under the bay windows. The garden also had parterres full of red geraniums


His daughter, Maime, recalls her sister saying to him “I believe, papa, that when you become an angel your wings will be made of looking-glass and your crown of scarlet geraniums”. Maime also wrote that “He loved all flowers, but especially bright flowers, and scarlet geraniums were his favourite of all.”


Even today, the emblem of the Dickens Fellowship is a scarlet geranium.


It’s said that professional horticulturists often looked down on pelargoniums (probably following on from their extensive use in the despised 'carpet bedding' of the Victorian era), despite their popularity with the public. However, doyenne of the Edwardian garden, Gertrude Jekyll, thought better of them, writing in her book, Colour Schemes for the Garden, 1908: “It is a common thing for friends to express surprise at seeing scarlet Geraniums… in my garden, forgetting that it was not the fault of the plants that they were misused or employed in dull or even stupid ways”. And she goes on to say “There are no better summer flowers than the single and double zonal Pelargoniums that we commonly call Geraniums, and none so good for such uses as the filling of tubs and vases”.


‘Spring Morning’ by James Tissot, c.1875. Note the scarlet pelargoniums in pots and in the borders


What's in a name? Pelargonium v Geranium


But as any gardener knows, garden centres and nurseries often still insist on calling these tropical plants geraniums rather than pelargoniums - which they attribute to the fact that as they have been called geraniums for so long, the public has gotten used to it, and so there's no point trying to change it. Botanically, it was only in the 1780's that pelargoniums were distinguished from the hardier geraniums – establishing the genus Pelargonium, although initially calling them Pelargonium geraniums. No wonder it's still confusing...


I’ve been looking at various definitions and differences between geraniums and pelargoniums and have settled on that given by Shirley Hibberd in his lecture to the Royal Horticultural Society, ‘On the Pelargonium’, in June 1880 on the occasion of the RHS’s Pelargonium Society’s annual Exhibition.


Hibberd said A Pelargonium is not a Geranium…”.


Well, that's clear. I could leave it there, but better give you a bit more: Hibberd also described geraniums “as herbs of Europe” – think Herb Robert, Latin name Geranium Robertianum, for example. And Pelargoniums “as miniature trees of Africa” (as anyone knows whose had one for a long time, they can get leggy and look like little trees). These new pelargoniums were so popular that there was, according to Hibberd, “a mania”, lasting some 15 years (roughly between 1840 and 1855) for “raising scarlet Pelargoniums adapted for bedding; for those were the days of the horticultural scarlet fever…”.


But to finish off my exploration of this wonderful painting, here's what Wikipedia says about the differences between pelargoniums and geraniums:


‘Portrait’ by Dutch photographer, Johannes Hendrikus Antonius Maria Lutz. This autochrome was taken sometime between 1907 and 1917. Courtesy Rijksmuseum. Note the scarlet bedding pelargoniums


References:


Pelargoniums: By Any Other Name Would Smell So Sweet? , Dumbarton Oaks, Plant Humanities, Daisy Reid, Veronica Mattallana Chaves and Yao Jiang, 2021

American Paintings in the 19th Century, Part II, National Gallery of Art, Washington

The Age of Houseplants, Culture Study, online blog by Anne Helen Petersen, March 2022

Potted History: How Houseplants took over our Homes, Catherine Horwood, 2020

The Origin of Plants, Maggie Campbell-Culver, 2001

Plants in Garden History, Penelope Hobhouse, 1992


Further reading:


If you wish to read more about Dickens's love of the scarlet geranium/pelargonium [whichever you'd prefer to call it], I’d suggest Dr David Marsh’s blog for The Gardens Trust entitled Dickens and his Garden Dickens and his Garden | The Gardens Trust






391 views2 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page