Go forth and multiply

    The easiest and fastest plant in the world to propagate has to be the geranium. It’s as simple as cutting a stem from the mother plant and leaving it out for a day or so.

    The cut stem dries out and begins to form a callus, which seems to encourage rooting. Poke the stem into a container of potting soil and give it some water, and in a week it will be rooted and growing; a clone of the original. One plant can easily become ten or more in this way.

    Yesterday a friend came over and went home with this bag of geranium cuttings to add to her plant collection. The ease of propagating geraniums makes them one of the most common house and garden plants that we grow, which is maybe why some people don’t like them.

    Believe it or not, there was a time when geraniums were considered incredibly exotic. The picture to the right was painted by Rembrandt Peale, probably here in Germantown in 1801. It’s a double portrait of his brother Rubens and Rubens’ prize geranium.

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    Geranium inquinans is the species from which all modern hybrid geraniums descend. A native of South Africa, it was collected first by Linneaus for his extensive herbarium. Thomas Jefferson managed to get his hands on some seed when he was in Paris in 1760, and grew it when he was in France for all those years. The plant in the picture is possibly a cutting or grand-cutting of the Jefferson geranium, and was somewhat famous in Philadelphia, as it was thought to be the first geranium ever grown in the New World.

    Geranium inquinans is extremely easy to grow and looks exactly like it does in the painting. I’ve never seen it for sale in a store. The best way to get it is to beg a piece of it from an acquaintance, in the tradition of Linneaus, Jefferson, and Peale.

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