Almost all the plants crammed into the cabins of the First Fleet were edible, but Arthur Bowes-Smyth, surgeon on the Lady Penrhyn, found room for some whose purpose was purely pretty: geraniums. “Good choice,” says Robyn Bible of the first exotic ornamental to arrive in Sydney. Bible is a local expert on all things geranium. She reckons Bowes-Smyth would have had no problem establishing his geraniums when he arrived in January 1788, as long as he planted them in well-draining soil, not too close together. Humid Februarys, like the one we just sweated through, can induce fungal problems in geraniums not kept in airy conditions. Pots are best lifted off the ground; plants in the garden shouldn’t be grown too close together; and dead leaves and flowers should be cleaned up. Given that basic care, there’s no reason Bowes-Smyth would not have been propagating geraniums for his colleagues (or convicts) by autumn.
Now is the perfect time to propagate geraniums. But first an aside on names. The plants we all call geraniums are actually pelargoniums, another member of the same family. Originally from southern Africa, they had made their way to the Botanical Garden in Leiden in the Netherlands before 1600, and from there to England via Paris. A year after the first geraniums arrived in Sydney they were designated pelargoniums but Bible thinks it’s perfectly okay to stick with Bowes-Smyth and call them geraniums.
To propagate geraniums take a cutting just above a node, then trim the cutting to just below a node. The usual advice is to dip the cutting in honey or hormone powder, but Bible uses methylated spirits. She says it speeds the callousing process and increases the strike rate. Put the cutting into seed-raising or propagating mix, and mist gently, not allowing the mix to get too wet, or too dry. Cuttings should strike in three to six weeks depending on the weather.
Bible will be selling some of her uncountable bounty at the Collectors’ Plant Fair, at the Hawkesbury Racecourse, Clarendon, on April 11 and 12. She is particularly excited by a new version of the geranium success story of the past few years, ‘Big Red’, which has big, year-round flowers, on particularly disease-resistant green foliage. The new version adds lacy-looking yellow veining to the leaves, and is called ‘Johann’s Red Lace’. Bible will bring it to Clarendon, along with tiny alpine geraniums, fancy foliage varieties, multi-coloured floral types called speckles, and lots of the highly versatile ivy geraniums which do hanging baskets, banks, groundcover and fence climbing. (Find out more on growing geraniums at a meeting of the Australian Geranium Society, details at www.australiangeraniumsociety.org.au.)
As it turned out Bowes-Smyth didn’t need to bring his own geraniums – they were already here. There are about seven members of the family native to Australia. Of most use to the hungry First Fleeters would have been Pelagonium rodneyanum, also called magenta storksbill. This plant has pretty deep-pink flowers and, more importantly given what happened next, tuberous, starchy tap-roots that are edible.