Sunday, May 25, 2014
Johnson’s Blue Geranium
Weather: Finally some rain Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Last fall’s rains probably formed the hidden buds that produced this year’s flush of snowballs, privets, forsythia, tufted white evening primroses, purple mat flowers and needle grass.
What’s blooming in the area: Austrian copper and yellow species roses, yellow potentilla, snowball, bearded iris, chives, peony, oriental poppy, Jupiter’s beard, pink evening primrose, blue flax, purple-flowered salvia.
Hay fields have recovered from last year’s drought. Most are green and a uniform height. Last year they were uneven where the alfalfa was growing and the brome grass was not.
Beyond the walls and fences: Alfilerillo, western stickseed, bractless cryptantha, tumble mustard, tufted white evening primrose, purple mat flower, fern leaf globemallow, oxalis, bindweed, goat’s beard, native and common dandelions, cheat, needle, rice and June grasses.
In my yard: Privet, skunkbush, Johnson’s Blue geranium, Bath pinks, snow-in-summer, golden spur columbine, vinca, pink-flowered salvia; buds on baptisia; buddleia and Russian sage putting new growth up from roots.
Bedding plants: Finally felt safe planting them. Most went out of bloom waiting for the last frost date to pass. About a dozen snapdragons wintered over.
Animal sightings: Cottontail, gecko, pair of hummingbirds, other small birds, harvester and small black ants.
Weekly update: If ever a plant was plagued by snobbery, it’s a geranium. And wherever snobs gather, you can be sure nothing is what it seems.
There are those who claim the bright red zone-leafed plants that survive in window boxes aren’t true geraniums because their genus is Pelargonium. The fact they are in the geranium family doesn’t matter. True snobs always make distinctions between branches of families, and only admit some, usually the scions of the oldest son.
We won’t use the words they apply to the pink cranes bills blooming in my drive. After all, they’re Erodiums.
The Johnson’s Blue geraniums that survived under my peach would not be admitted as true Johnson’s Blues. They have red mid-ribs, white filaments and charcoal anthers. Genuine Johnson’s have yellow stamens. Mine at least have the white centers characteristic of the "real thing."
One purveyor of English breeding, tells gardeners the plant was "raised in Holland by B Ruys from seed from A T Johnson in 1950. First described by Graham Stuart Thomas in his Perennial Garden Plants - The Modern Florilegium in 1962." Thompson’s imprimatur is the Burk’s Peerage, the DAR of plants.
Of course, that’s a bit dubious. Arthur Tysilio Johnson was 77 years old in 1950, the year Bonne Ruijs died. The latter had left his company’s board in 1942 and had broken all ties in 1948 when he was 83 years old. The company run by his children, Royal Moerheim Nurseries of Dedemsvaart, was the one making introductions.
Johnson’s Blue is a sterile hybrid of Geranium himalayense and Geranium pratense. It spreads by underground rhizomes.
Once the blue flowers became popular, other nurseries needed to provide something suitable. Since there were no seeds, breeders had to replicate the hybrid Johnson had created in north Wales. Snobs let you know those "brand X" imitations have no pratense in their genes. That matters. The dollop from the Meadow crane’s bill is needed to cleanse the Himalayan DNA of its foreign origins.
Nature is no snob. Pratense isn’t just an English species. It’s found from Europe through the alpine highlands of western Asia from 4,600 to 13,000 feet. It’s naturalized itself in Canada. In India, geneticists discovered some plants showed a tendency to polyploid reproduction.
Whenever plants have more than the usual two pairs of chromosomes, the offspring of crosses with other species can vary. Many of those disdained Johnson Blue geraniums may have the right ancestors, but the heritage doesn’t appear in the accepted patterns of coloration.
Color is not absolute, but a construct formed by the brain interacting with reflected light. While snobs fuss about the red ribs, they’re more casual about the shade of blue in the five petals.
New Zealand chemists determined the actual color in Johnson’s Blue comes from the presence of unique forms of malvidin, kaempferol and myricetin. The first is an anthocyanin pigment. The second is a flavonol found in delphinium. The last is a flavonol found in grapes.
However, for the color to appear, the pH in the petals has to be within the acidic range of 6.6 and 6.8. Grow it in alkaline soils or give it local water and colors will vary.
Anyone who’s studied European history knows the dangers of pedigrees in determining suitable mates among the aristocracy. Given enough generations, purified strains tend to weaken. Johnson Blue needs that Himalayan ancestry where both parents can grow above 12,000' to survive in northern New Mexico.
I’ve tried other named varieties of geraniums here. This is the only one that’s survived two winters. I added more plants last summer from other nurseries. The place I bought mine in 2011 no longer offered what I needed. Not all were as hardy. If I look closely, I notice they aren’t identical. Different colored ribs are a feature, not a disqualifier.
Brittain, Julia. The Plant Lover’s Companion, 2006, entry on "Johnson, A. T. (1873-1956).
eflora of China website entries for "Geranium pratense Linnaeus" and "Geranium himalayense Klotzsch."
Jonge, A. W. J. de. "Ruijs, Bonne (1865-1950)," Biographical Dictionary of Netherlands 2 (1985).
Kumar, P. and V. K. Singhal. "Chromosome Number and Secondary Chromosomal Associations in Wild Populations of Geranium pratense L. from the Cold Deserts of Lahaul-Spiti (India)," TSitologiia I genetika 47:56-65:2013.
Markham, K. R., K. A. Mitchell and M. R. Boase. "Malvidin-3-O-glucoside-5-O-(6-acetylglucoside) and Its Colour Manifestation in 'Johnson's Blue' and Other 'Blue' Geraniums," Phytochemistry 45:417-423:1997.
The Plantsman’s Preference, Norfolk, England, on-line catalog entry for "Geranium 'Johnson's Blue'."
United States Department of Agriculture. Agricultural Research Service. Germplasm Resources Information Network. Entry for "Geranium pratense L."
1. Johnson’s Blue geranium blooming under peach, 21 May 2014.
2. Zonal geranium on my enclosed porch, 24 May 2014.
3. Alfilerillo, Erodium circutarium, in my drive, 21 May 2014.
4. Johnson’s Blue geranium, 21 Mary 2014.
5. Johnson’s Blue geranium, 21 May 2014.
6. Johnson’s Blue geranium, 19 May 2013.
7. Another Johnson’s Blue geranium plant with whitish ribs, 13 July 2013.
8. Johnson’s Blue geranium leaf, 21 May 2014.