Pelargonium – a good choice for Dry Gardens

California is entering what is typically a dry time of year, and with the severe drought, this year is especially tough. On Alcatraz, we have cut back on watering in the gardens and have altered our watering schedule to water less frequently but longer so the water can soak deeper into the soil.

The plants are coping with reduced water and it is interesting to see how different plants are responding. The survivor plants – the plants that were able to cling to life after the Federal prison shut down in 1963 – are demonstrating their true strength.

Pelagonium 'San Antonio' in full bloom in dry soil. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Pelagonium ‘San Antonio’ in full bloom in dry soil. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

For example, the plantings of Pelargonium on the Rose Terrace are all heirloom cultivars but are either survivor plants from the island or are ones that we purchased and introduced. We even have three Pelargonium that were propagated from the Presidio pet cemetery where they receive no water or care.

The island survivors are coping well and are blooming away after a short dormant period. They include plants with the names of ‘Prince Bismarck’, ‘Mrs. Langtry’, ‘Brilliant’, ‘San Antonio’, Pelargonium quercifolium, and ‘Alphonse Ricard’. In our gardens, some of these slow down with the blooming in July and do have rust spots on the leaves and tend to drop the lower leaves but by the end of August, they are rebounding and are back in   full bloom.

A treasured find were the pelargoniums from

Pelargonium 'Apricot', an heirloom found in the Pet Cemetery. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Pelargonium ‘Apricot’, an heirloom found in the Pet Cemetery. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

the Pet Cemetery. I’ve only been able to positively identify one with a name as being Pelargonium ‘Apricot’. This one has scented leaves that are very lobed and crinkly with rose/pink flowers with a white center. This is a non-stop bloomer from spring through to the beginning of winter for us. We have another two that are Martha Washington varieties in two different shades of pink.

Contrasted to our survivors, the purchased pelargonium have really slowed down with blooming and with overall growth.  For most of them, they have finer leaves and are more delicate. We do give them more water than the survivors, but without the extra love, I’m sure they would not make it. Even though they may not be much to look at right now, they are still impressive for their ability to cope through the summer and once spring arrives they will be blooming fearlessly.

A purchased heirloom pelargonium coping with the dry season despite a weekly watering. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

A purchased heirloom pelargonium coping with the dry season despite a weekly watering. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

I confess, I’m always on the lookout for plants growing in the toughest and unlikely places. Just last night, while attending a Park Academy class at the Fort Scott Community Garden in the Presidio, I noticed some pelargonium with wooden stems spilling out of wine barrels. I caught site of another fuzzy leaved one growing alongside a potting shed. Another scented leaved one was spotted growing in the herb garden! Very exciting to find these tough guys that were obviously heirlooms. With permission, I took cuttings of each and hope to find names for them and see how they do with our Alcatraz collection.

Cuttings of Pelargoniums from Fort Scott Community garden in the Presidio. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Cuttings of Pelargoniums from Fort Scott Community garden in the Presidio. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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One Response to Pelargonium – a good choice for Dry Gardens

  1. Zann says:

    Fantastic survivors! I’ve become far more appreciative of Pelargonium species in these drought times. Another surprise for me has been pincushion flowers! I’ve seen Leucospermum blooming like crazy with zero watering all over town. Not an Alcatraz heirloom, but a good potential addition?