Friday, May 18, 2012

When is a Geranium actually a Geranium?



Species name: Geranium maculatum

Common name: Wild geranium, Spotted geranium, Wood geranium

Location: Ontario

I must say, I'm pleased to find out that this is a native plant! The wild geranium is native to eastern North America and the northeastern United States. There's an shockingly similar plant that's native to Europe called the Wild Cranesbill (this plant is also sometimes called the Wild Cranesbill in Canada and Woodland Geranium in Europe...no one said the common names of plants were any less confusing than the Latin names!), but it has slightly different shaped petals so I'm pretty sure this is the North American species. It's one of my favourite "weeds" in the garden that grows either by the pond (think small...it's more like a big permanent puddle than it is a "paddle around in a canoe and find frogs" pond) or by the fence at the back of the yard, but seemingly never in both places in the same year. This year seems to be a "by the fence year"!

Confusingly (no part of this blog post seems to be straight-forward...), this is only somewhat distantly related to the "garden geranium" that many North Americans and Europeans plant in their gardens right around this time of year. Those geraniums are in a genus named Pelargonium, and all of those species are native to South Africa (this refers to the southern part of the continent, not the country; just making sure we're sticking to the "confusing blog post" theme!). Both of these genera are part of the same family, the Geraniaceae. To compare Latin names to common names, the story doesn't get any clearer: species of Pelargonium are referred to as Storksbills, while species of Geranium are referred to as Cranesbills. In North America, we call one species of bird a stork and another a crane, while the reverse is true in Europe. So you can't even use the shape of the mature fruit to determine if it's a crane or a stork bill, because it would depend on your geography which one is which. I'll give you some time to think that one through... :)

Like many spring wild flowers, the wild geranium relies on a rhizome to accumulate nutrients during the fall to use for spring growth. The rhizome is high in tannins (the same chemicals that give dry red wine the "mouth pucker feel") and has been used in the medicinal practices of many indigenous peoples to treat diarrhea, canker sores, gum disease, thrush in babies, venereal disease, and what is probably throat cancer. It might be effective against some mouth-related ailments, but I doubt it's going to turn out to be the next great cure or treatment for cancer. I have been wrong before, so we'll have to wait and see! It has also been used to prevent infection around the site of the umbilical cord cut in newborns, as a component of anti-bacterial face wash, as an anti-itch paste, and to counter-act a "love medicine." This plant sure gets around!