Hot news for an old flower standby

There's a plant that blooms enthusiastically from spring until frost, has attractive foliage often carrying an interesting zonal pattern, demands minimum attention -- even tolerating some neglect -- and is seldom bothered by pests or disease. It's the geranium, that old standby that turns up in ``new and improved'' form almost every year.

In 1984, between 250 million to 300 million geraniums were sold in the United States. Gardeners grow geraniums in window boxes, as color-fillers in perennial gardens, espaliered against a wall, in mass plantings, as single-specimen standards, and in many different types of containers. Even nongardeners often have a couple of pots of geraniums on the front porch or a basket of ivy geraniums hanging on the deck.

Until recently all bedding plant geraniums were raised from cuttings, but now cutting producers like Grand View Geranium Gardens, Yoder Bros., and Oglevee Associates are being challenged by the seed industry.

The Sprinter series of seedling geraniums, developed by Glenn Goldsmith in conjunction with a Dutch firm, were introduced to commercial growers in 1973. Since then seedling geraniums have steadily grown in popularity both with the bedding plant industry and the home gardener who likes to raise his own bedding plants from seed.

The compact, floriferous Sprinters are still popular, but the seed industry has gone far beyond those first seed geraniums, offering geraniums today in a much wider color range -- with zonal foliage, bi-colors, and even double flowers.

If you want to raise your own geraniums from seed, they are as easy to grow as marigolds or zinnias. Plan on about 100 days from seed to flower. The two geranium varieties I am growing this year, which I started the first of March, germinated in three or four days and within a week had already been potted into their first three-inch pots. I will grow them in an indoor light garden, feeding regularly, until our last possible frost threat is passed, roughly the end of April here in North Carolina.

By then the vigorous, self-branching geraniums will be ready to go outdoors and display their splashes of color from late spring until frost.

While hybridizers at all seed firms in the US and abroad have a number of goals -- an outstanding white geranium; shatter-proof (no petal loss) flowers; vigorous, compact plants; more interesting colors and flower forms; and more attractive foliage -- one American breeder recently achieved something remarkable. The ``hot'' news in seed geraniums comes from the Denholm Seed Company of Lompoc, Calif.

Denholm's plant breeder, Blair Winner, has produced the first ivy geraniums from seed for the market, and they are handsome, floriferous, multi-branching plants. This series, named Summer Showers, won the silver medal at the European Fleuroselect trials this past winter -- prestigious indeed, for there have been only two other silver medals awarded during Fleuroselect's 11 years and never a gold.

Mr. Winner began working with ivy geraniums seven years ago, using the available cutting varieties which set seed reluctantly. For example, each geranium flower can produce five seeds. When he first hand-pollinated 100 flowers with the potential for 500 seeds, he got only one or two.

Generation by generation, he selected the most promising ivy geranium parents for his hybridizing, and now seed production is up to 50 percent. That number is not as high as the 85 percent of zonal geranium seed production, but high enough to be commercially viable.

This year samples of the seed have been sent to all the universities involved in horticulture, like Penn State and Michigan State, all the seed companies, and a few large growers.

In 1986 the seed, produced in Denholm's growing areas in Baja California and Costa Rica, will be available for both the wholesale and retail trade, so you will be able to buy baskets of Summer Showers at your garden center or order the seed from your favorite catalog and raise the plants yourself.

Initially, Summer Showers will be offered in a mix of five colors: lavender, white, scarlet, pink, and plum. I saw the plants at Denholm's last October, and while all the colors are attractive, the plum hue is irresistible. I'm already looking forward to 1988 when we will be able to buy this seed in individual colors.

Two of Mr. Winner's goals in his ongoing breeding program are new and different colors and plants that will be superior in outdoor growing conditions.

At present, the seed ivy geraniums are clearly better than cutting geraniums in one way -- they self-branch enthusiastically. While a cutting of an ivy geranium will perhaps produce three breaks if pinched, these new seedlings routinely exhibit up to six breaks without pinching. Otherwise, the seedlings are as good as, but no better than, cutting geraniums.

Meanwhile, Mr. Winner continues to look for that one truly splendid plant. Like the avid amateur gardener who is raising trees from seed, taking hardwood cuttings or grafting small twigs, professional plant breeders live on dreams of potential -- next year, next year.

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