A genus of plants having a beak-like torus or receptacle, around which the seed-capsules are arranged, and membranous projections, or stipules, at the joints. Most of the species have showy flowers and a pungent odor. Called sometimes crane’s-bill. — Webster, 1882
Laura Ingalls Wilder potted (or canned!) geraniums growing on the windowsills during the winter in two Little House books, Farmer Boy and The First Four Years. Wilder doesn’t tell us the color of her Dakota geraniums, but the ones at the Wilder home in New York were said to be “redder than Mother’s red dress.” (See Chapter 5, “Birthday.”) The photo shows salmon-colored geraniums growing in a pot in pioneergirl’s yard.
Laura’s geraniums wouldn’t have been the native American geranium, or cranesbill, but hybridized Pelargoniums, descendants of two natives of plants brought to the United States in Colonial times from South Africa via Europe: Pelargonium inquinans and Pelargonium zonale. Used as bedding or potted plants outdoors even during the 1870s and 1880s, these tender perennials were often brought indoors for the winter months. They would bloom when placed in warm sunlight, providing a touch of color during the long winter months, and they could be moved outdoors again in the spring.
Early September was the time to plan for your winter geraniums in both Dakota Territory and New York State. The September 21, 1883, Iroquois (Dakota Territory) Herald reported the following: Things worth knowing: Those that wish to have geraniums bloom in midwinter or before, should make their cuttings now. Use any kind of box containing three or four inches of sand. Keep this moist and exposed to the morning sun.
A late summer issue of the New York Observer published during the time of Farmer Boy gave the following instructions for geraniums in winter:
Geraniums that are expected to bloom in winter must have a season of rest during the summer. Keep the plants in pots out-of-doors, under the shade of some trees, till early September, and water sparingly. In the beginning of September shake the soil from the roots, replant them in cans in rich, sandy loam, and bring them forward to the sun and air. Place them in a sunny window, indoors, when there is danger of frost, and when they begin to grow give them an occasional watering with liquid manure. They need plenty of sun and air and a comparatively low temperature. In a hot room they will not do well.
If you want to have some geraniums in cans yourself each winter, start thinking about it in late summer. You know when summer is winding down in your area, and that’s the time to act. When the weather has cooled but there has been no frost, cut the outdoor potted plants back by about half, and re-pot using your best potting mixture. Give them a good drink of water before bringing them inside (if they’re in cans, make sure you use a can opener or nail and provide a drain hole or two), then let them dry slightly between waterings from then on. Being under stress nudges them to bloom a little more.
If you find that your plants are really struggling, you might want to just forget the window-sills and let them go dormant over the winter. Cover the whole plant with a paper bag and store in a cool, dark spot, such as an unheated basement. They like a bit of humidity, so you can mist the paper bag once in a while, or check to make sure the pots don’t dry out completely by giving a little water from time to time. Another way to over-winter is to cut the plant back to a third of its original size, remove the plant from the soil, shake to remove most of the dirt from the roots, and store the “bare roots” in paper bags in the basement or garage. When the weather warms in the spring, pot the bare roots or start giving your potted geraniums water and remove the paper bag. When you see signs of life, move to the light, then a sunny spot, then start treating them as you would any bedding plant you purchase in the spring.
geranium (FB 5; FFY Year 1, Year of Grace)