December 29, 2016

Wild Geranium

Sticky Geranium
Geranium viscosissimum

Quick ID
This perennial herb rises 1-3 feet up from thick, meaty rhizomes at the ground, with stem nodes swollen like arthritic knuckles.  Two-inch flowers are scattered atop, often nodding tipsy above the leaves, their five round petals ranging from gentle pink to an earnest fuchsia.  In time the blossoms give way to fruit capsules, their styles elongating into a distinctly pointed 1-inch 'beak' that eventually splits open, catapulting the seeds out and away from the plant.  Pow! Genius.  Leaves are palmate, with 5-7 toothy lobes divided almost to the base, arranged opposite along the flower stem and then alternating below.  The bracts (below the flowers), upper stems and leaves are glandular and sticky.  We wouldn't go so far as to say "gooey"...they feel more like they've been sprayed with an aerosol adhesive and never dried.  

There are seven Geranium species in Montana, the most similar being G. richardsonii, the White Geranium, whose flowers are...white.  But before you get too comfy boasting your botanical prowess, remember that this genus is notoriously difficult to label.  If you're picky-picky (I am not) check out SW Colorado Wildflowers' awesome article on the nitty-gritty details of telling geranium species apart, along with other interesting taxonomic morsels.

Found commonly in foothills to montane, from south-central BC and Alberta to Colorado, Utah and Nevada.  Like me, this species is not picky, and will be found in forests and prairies and open meadows, dry or soggy, shaded or in full reach of the sun.

What's in a Name?
In 1753, Linnaeus chose the genus name Geranium from the classical Greek word for a crane, geranos, in reference to the long beak-shaped fruits of late you'll often hear geraniums called "cranesbill" or "storksbill,"  The species name viscosissimum points to this species' sticky leaves and stems.  Viscum is the late Latin name for birdlime (a sticky goo spread on twigs to trap little birds) and ultimately comes from the ancient root weis-, meaning to melt or flow away.
Incidentally, the good old All-American Geranium we know and love (or loathe, depending on our moods), stocked so liberally in garden centers and windowboxes across the country, is not a geranium at all but rather a Pelargonium, evergreen and native to the tropics.   

Still going strong, first week of November
Sticky geraniums have a luxuriously long bloom time, opening blossoms dependably from May to August (depending on elevation of course).  This past fall (2016) was delightfully long and warm in central Montana, extending the blooming season clear into November.
As with most of our native species, the plant has a lengthy list of long-ranging medicinal uses.  It's edible but astringent and reportedly "unappealing".  We also need to take care not to confuse geraniums with monkshood (Aconitum columbianum), whose leaves are very similar and very poisonous.
         And finally...are geraniums carnivores?  May well be.  You'll certainly find wispy little bugs stuck on them, and to me that's an indicator that at least something's going on.  And some 20 years ago, a certain G. G Spomer's studies pointed to the fact that G. viscosissimum produces an enzyme capable of breaking down and digesting proteins.  As with everything, the question begs more study, but if you're interested you can check out his piece and see for yourself (Spomer, G.G. (1999). Evidence of protocarnivorous capabilities in Geranium viscosissimum and Potentilla arguta and other sticky plants. International Journal of Plant Sciences, 160(1): 98-101).

Wild Gardening
This is an excellent choice for native landscaping, as it's tolerant to a wide range of conditions and quick to produce blooms.  It's relatively easy to grow from seeds using a cold moist stratification method, but remember that the ripe fruits actively toss their seeds onward and outward, so collection can be tricky.  On the other hand, vegetative propagation through cuttings and rhizome divisions is a snap in the spring.  Give them dappled shade and not much water, and sit back ready to watch the pollinators come running.  Sticky geraniums are a great venue to observe all kinds of fascinating insect species...bees and beetles and butterflies all love them.  The petals are lined with dark-hued stripes that reflect ultra-violet light and guide insect towards the nectar source. Here, a scarab beetle that's evolved to mimic a bumblebee poses happily for a photo.  The resemblance is striking, but you can't fool me!  

1 comment:

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