Imagine a group of plants that flower over a long period,
will grow almost anywhere, provide attractive ground cover
and have blooms in a variety of stunning colours. Add to these
attributes an ability to bring bees and some butterflies
flocking to the garden, and even the odd bullfinch, and you
have perhaps the perfect group of plants for any wildlife
friendly plot. I am always on the lookout for plants that
have good wildlife value that will survive in any conditions
and one large group of plants has exceeded my expectations.
Even the varieties have the natural and unspoilt charm of
their native cousins. They are the cranesbills or hardy
Geraniums, and I for one wouldn’t know what to do without
Cranesbills are perfect plants needing only the minimum of
maintenance and attention. They will also grow in dry shade –
a real plus if you have trees that remove the last remaining
drop of moisture from the soil beneath. Perhaps a few
varieties self seed rather too prolifically, but if this is
into dry soil where little else will establish, I am hardly
likely to complain.
have a good number of native cranesbills in this country,
named after their long ‘beaky’ seed pods. The meadow
cranesbill Geranium pratense is perhaps the most well known,
and grows in the wild on dry chalky soils. In the garden is a
perfect plant in almost any soil. The sky blue colour varies
depending on the soil type, and is said to be at its most
glorious blue in my home county of Oxfordshire. However like
all the Geraniums, there is a wanton tendency to cross
pollinate with others in the genus, leading to a variety of
colours from the palest blue to the colour of a Mediterranean
sky. What ever its final colour it is a lovely plant for a
meadow or border.
are several other versatile natives. The hedge or mountain
cranesbill, Geranium pyreniacum, has dainty mauve flowers.
This plant can often be seen along roadsides in light shade
and it flowers in late spring and early summer. In the garden
it will occupy difficult spaces beneath dry hedging as long as
the shade is not too dense. Geranium sanguineum is familiar
to many gardeners as a ground cover or rockery plant. Known
as bloody cranesbill, it is tolerant of sunny, dry conditions
and comes in a variety of colour forms as well as the dark red
wild type. Geranium phaeum or mourning widow, with its dark
purple, almost black flowers is another favourite native for
dry shade, and in its white version, really lights up a dark
the natives perhaps the most striking is the wood cranesbill,
Geranium sylvaticum. In the wild this plant sometimes creates
swathes of purple-blue in dappled woodland. In the garden the
larger flowered varieties of the wildflower come in blue, pink
and white forms and all are quite stunning, being up to a metre tall on
small native species may not have the impact of those already
mentioned, but the dove’s-foot cranesbill has great wildlife
value, being one of the larval food plants of the tiny brown
argus butterfly. This little plant, with its hairy round
leaves, is often found in lawns or as a garden weed. Geranium
robertianum or Herb Robert brings colour to the garden at any
time of year and bullfinches love the seeds. Its attractive green leaves become suffused
with crimson in cold weather, giving a splash of red to a dull
corner in the winter months, and the tiny pink flowers may
appear at virtually any time.
As Geraniums are found all
around the world in a range of habitats, it is no wonder that
it is possible to find a variety that will suit any garden
situation. The large Mediterranean species, G. palmatum, came
originally from Madeira and needs a hot dry spot to thrive as
it is not reliably hardy. It is worth the effort though as in
the right place it can reach well over a meter in height and
the branched spike of flowers bears a profusion of bright pink
blooms. Other tall varieties include the colourful G.
psilostemon which has bright magenta flowers with a dark eye,
and dominates a border with its dramatic colouration.
June is one of the best
month for hardy Geraniums. The foliage grows quickly in
the spring to produce a mound of attractive leaves and the
flowers appear from May onwards and, depending on species, may
continue well past June and into the mid summer months.
If the plants begin to look a little worn in the summer, the
foliage can be cut right back to produce a new flush of fresh
growth. I prefer to cut back just a few in full view to
refresh the leaves, leaving other plants alone to provide
cover for wildlife into the autumn.
There are so many hardy
Geranium varieties and species (well over 200) that it is
possible to become a little confused. Their ability to
hybridize at will also means that new varieties appear all the
time in nurseries and garden centres. If you grow a selection
you will soon find that you have your own unique collection.
But in spite of its chameleon nature, the hardy Geranium has
the ability to attract insects even where the plant has
changed from the original species through deliberate or
accidental hybridization. The open flowers have copious
amounts of pollen and are particularly good for small bumblebee species and
some solitary bees. Others, especially the natives, also have nectar
and several small butterfly species will visit the flowers.
The majority of the garden
forms set seed well and these are large and nutritious. All
the finches seem to like them, but in particular the bullfinch
is fond of the seeds of several of the native species. In my garden
I can expect to see a family of bullfinches in June searching
for the seeds of mourning widow, but also several
of the other species including the humble herb Robert.
You could be forgiven for
thinking that plants with all these virtues would be difficult
to grow, but of course they are simplicity itself. They
benefit from the occasional organic mulch. The tired foliage
can be cut back in summer if you wish to provide a fresh burst
of growth, but this is certainly not necessary. Removal of
the previous season’s dead leaves can be done in early March
but watch out! I have more than once found a hibernating
hedgehog beneath the mound of winter foliage. Propagation
is also easy as plants can be split or grown from small rooted
pieces, and seeds germinate well after a cold winter.
All in all, at least in my
garden, they are perfect plants. They have colour, attractive foliage and
drought tolerance together with the ability to attract bees,
butterflies, bullfinches and even the occasional hedgehog.
Every wildlife garden should have some.