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Gardeners' Dirt: Up-close, personal with a geranium

By By Helen Boatman - Victoria County Master GardenerEdited by Charla Borchers Leon
Sept. 19, 2013 at 4:19 a.m.

The hardy Mary Helen geranium can grow 3-4 feet tall and withstand hot and dry conditions contrary to other hybrid geraniums that are shorter and do not fare well in similar conditions.

All about the Mary Helen Geranium

•  Very hardy; withstands heat and drought.

•  Prefers some shade from summer west sun.

•  Will grow from cuttings planted in ground and in pots.

•  Blooms orange-red flowers off and on all year long but must be protected in freezing temperatures.

•  No pests or diseases observed.

•  Can grow 3-4 feet tall with wide breadth of stems.

• New plant will grow from where unsupported stem touches ground

•  Does not tolerate freeze. To withstand cold and freeze, move potted plants to protected area. Throw an old blanket on the ones in the landscape.

•  With good care, will be a long-timer in your garden.

Source: Victoria County Master Gardener Helen Boatman

If you purchased a Mary Helen geranium from our recent Master Gardener plant sale - congratulations. It has a very interesting story that I, perhaps, know best.

All geraniums have the botanical name of Pelargonium and originated from South Africa. The migration story to the New World is probably a fascinating one; however, the only story I know is about the Mary Helen and how it came into my life.

We became acquainted in the Valley

In McAllen in 1966, my husband and I moved into a house with a yard that had been somewhat neglected. Our neighbors, Harold and Mary Montgomery, on the other hand had an immaculate yard. They were an older couple, and we were newly married, so looking back, they probably thought here was their chance to get an adjacent yard to be equal to theirs by training the young folks.

Harold gave my husband, Jim, tips on proper lawn care, and Mary started me on landscape plants. Among the plants were cuttings of geraniums, which I never cared for when my mother grew them; however, for the sake of being neighborly under Mary's tutelage, I was able to cultivate those cuttings into beautiful plants. Our lawn and the geraniums as well as other plants, flourished as long as we lived there.

Move to Mississippi left geraniums to odds

As time passed, our family grew, and a business transfer took us out of the Rio Grande Valley to Mississippi. We moved in January, and that was shock enough, especially when the movers left the South Texas potted geraniums I had outside in the cold. The next morning, I found them, and they were frozen. My geraniums were gone.

Subject to freezing

Several years later, we returned to McAllen to show our children their birth city and to visit friends. Stopping in front of the Montgomery home, one of the first things I noticed was the geranium growing in her flower bed. As we were leaving, I asked Mary if I could have some geranium cuttings, which she happily supplied.

Since then, I have been very careful about the geranium in the winter, because even here in Victoria, it is subject to freezing.

Grow from cuttings

Years passed, children grew up, and the geraniums kept growing as well. I had taken many cuttings and had multiple plantings in my yard as well as in pots. When my Master Gardener organization had its first plant sale, which was in Victoria Mall in 2000, I had several pots of geraniums to offer - and have also at most later plant sales. At that time, the name was just "geranium."

A Texas Superstar?

In 2008, Jerry Parsons, extension horticulturist with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension gave a presentation on Texas Superstar plants at the South Texas Farm and Ranch Show in Victoria.

Until his retirement, he had worked with the program of determining plants to be designated as Texas Superstars.

His comment about how geraniums could not withstand our hot summers prompted me to approach him with the geranium information I had. He wanted to see for himself, and I was eager to share.

Named for my neighbor, me

He was amazed at how well the geraniums were growing in my yard. He took many cuttings; some were propagated in his greenhouse in San Antonio, others were sent to the Extension Research Centers in Overton and Lubbock.

He told me I should give the geranium a name. After much deliberation, my geranium was named Mary Helen - for the neighbor who gave me my first cutting and myself.

Good characteristics are many

The good characteristics of the Mary Helen are many - it is a very hardy plant that can withstand heat and drought. It has an orange-red flower that is not as showy as hybrid geraniums, but it does bloom off and on all year but must be protected in freezing weather.

It will grow to about 3-4 feet tall and if not given support will fall over on the ground. Wherever the stem touches the ground, a new plant will grow. It likes a little shade from the west in the summer will grow in the ground and in pots. I have never seen any kind of pest or disease on my plants

The one thing that will kill the plant is freezing weather. To protect them in the winter, I move my potted plants to a covered area and throw an old blanket on the ones in the landscape. If this plant is given good care, it will continue growing and blooming for many years.

So, while the horticulture experts continue to test its superb growing and blooming capabilities, it may or may not become a Texas Superstar in the future. Nevertheless, it will always be my own super star.

The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or vcmga@vicad.com, or comment on this column at VictoriaAdvocate.com.

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