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Wild geraniums

2012 April 12

By Ken Moore
Flora columnist

Cool, moist interludes during this early warm spring provide optimal conditions for a lingering presence of our wildflowers. Beginning to show up now in local forests are wild geraniums, with purple and pink flowers seeming to hover in the air above distinctive, deeply lobed leaves. The wild geranium, Geranium maculatum, is far more sophisticated, I think, than those popular brightly colored florist and bedding-plant geraniums, the Pelargonium species from much warmer climates.

Wild geranium flowers seem to hover above deeply lobed leaves. Photo by Ken Moore

This lovely wild geranium of mountain and Piedmont cove forests is sometimes called alumroot because of its described medicinal use as an astringent and septic. It should not, however, be confused with more commonly called alumroot, Heuchera americana, which has similar medicinal qualities.

Wild geranium is also more appropriately called cranesbill or storksbill. Geranium, in fact, means “crane.” The seed-bearing structure resembles a crane’s or stork’s long beak and serves a very specific function. There are five seeds at the base of the beak, and when the seeds are mature that beak splits into five segments and, one at a time, the individual seeds are catapulted up and forward as far as 30 feet away.

Aging leaves of Carolina cranesbill are tinged with red. Photo by Ken Moore

The seeds’ movement doesn’t stop there. Each seed has a little tail or awn that curls when dry and extends when wet, causing that little seed to continue to travel until it may eventually settle into a soil cavity with potential for germination and growth.

Jack Sanders (The Secrets of Wildflowers) poetically describes the seed’s movements in “Adventurers.”
Geranium seeds are a traveling lot,
First they fly, fired like a shot,
Then they crawl in search of a spot,
A nook or a cranny in which to squat
And settle a new geranium plot.

Wild geranium has a tiny weedy native cousin, Carolina cranesbill, Geranium carolinianum, which most folks will quickly extract from their gardens. I let it run rampant over my yard where my Welsh gardening friend, Sue Morgan, enjoys carefully stepping through un-mown sweeps of flowering weeds. She is particularly keen on the characteristic round, palmately dissected geranium leaves thrusting above lingering purple henbit, Lamium purpureum, and bird’s-eye speedwell, Veronica persica.

The tiny pink geranium flower often goes unnoticed, except to the keen eye of friend Sue, who is charmed by the “perfect miniature geranium flower.”

It takes a “closer look" to see the tiny geranium flower of weedy cranesbill. Photo by Ken Moore

A “closer look” at this diminutive wild geranium will unveil the beauty found in red tinges of the aging leaves and the persistent sepals surrounding the five dark seeds at the base of the beak-like center.

Though friend Sue doesn’t allow such freedom to flowering weeds in her garden, she’s happy to view them in my yard.
As I always suggest, before you pull it up, take a closer look and you may find hidden beauty there.

Email Ken Moore at flora@carrborocitizen.com. Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora (carrborocitizen.com/flora).

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