Geranium Virus & Art's Garden Update

It may be that the geranium viruses that cause non-blooming in hot weather are back with us; and our garden is doing well this summer!
by Art Drysdale
by Art Drysdale


Art Drysdale, a life-long resident of Toronto and a horticulturist well known all across Canada, is now a resident of Parksville, British Columbia on Vancouver Island, just north of Nanaimo. He has reno-vated an old home and has a new garden there. His radio gardening vignettes are heard in south-western Ontario over radio station Easy 101 FM out of Tillsonburg at 2 PM weekdays.

Art also has his own website at

August 15, 2010

Above: The newer seed-geranium ‘Orange Appeal’, photo courtesy Stokes Seeds; and shots of my Pentas just outside my office door, as well as the Gloriosa lilies which are just outside the house front door. Below, the most unusual Berkheya purpurea ‘Silver Spikes’ and the Blackberry lily (Belamcanda chinensis ‘Freckle Face’).
Author photos.

Just on Thursday this past week I heard from Alex Currie. Here are his comments and question: “Art, I used to hear you on the radio for years back in Toronto. In searching for an answer about Geraniums you popped up in Parksville. It seems that we both got the bug of Vancouver Island as we moved to Chemainus from Burlington three years ago.

“My question is to do with Geraniums. They were rocking along, blooming well and growing in the usual hanging pots and planters. I water them regularly, feed them some Miracle Grow about every 3 weeks and deadhead them by cutting the flower stems off as close to the branch as possible as the blooms collapse. However, we are currently facing an absence of not only flowers but also there does not seem to be any new buds forming. Is it possible that this is a species issue as we bought them from a different source this year based many on colour (red) or is something else afoot here?

“Any and all assistance is greatly appreciated. Thanks.”

It sounds to me as if you have a virus on the geraniums. Which type are they? If they are the most common Zonal type (with a darker colouring about the same shape as the leaf in the centre of each) it absolutely could be a virus about which I have written on a number of occasions. Two decades ago or more in southern Ontario, geranium growers started getting reports, mainly about the common Zonal Geraniums, that while they bloomed well in the spring, by the time the heat of July rolled around the plants all stopped blooming. And, they did not re-commence blooming until the cooler weather returned in mid or even late September. Do let me know what happens as the weather cools this year!

The virus (actually there are about 17 of them but they are extremely hard to identify) was diagnosed and growers used one of two regimens to eliminate the problem. One was to grow the plants in a sterile environment where anyone entering the greenhouses would walk through a sterilizing solution to eliminate the transfer of the virus from nearby soil. In addition, all insects were excluded through screening of all openings. The other method was to grow the plants through a number of successive cuttings; i.e. after a cutting rooted and started growing, say to 10 cm (4”) of growth, a new cutting would be taken from the top of each young plant and the old rooted bases would be put in the garbage. This done two or three times seemed to eliminate enough of the virus so that it did not impact the plants in their first year. The reason this works is that the virus is usually centred at the base of the stem, and not up at the top of the actively growing cutting.

It sounds to me that you may have that virus or one similar to it. If you bought your geraniums as young plants at a garden centre, you should advise them--they may well have had similar reports from other customers, and may re-place the plants. If you grew the plants from cuttings you took yourself (or someone else did) using old ‘mother’ plants from the previous year, then you very well could have a virus. And, the only answer, for another year, is the two- or three-cutting regimen.

Of course, you might also consider changing your source of plants next year!

One additional note concerns the seed-type geraniums sold by most seed companies from their catalogues. The virus-es do not pass to a plant’s seed, so seed-type geraniums are perfect if geranium viruses are commonly present. There is a somewhat more limited range within the seeded types, but increasingly the numbers are rising. For many years now the Orbit series was considered the best but now there are many others including the Horizon series, and a newer single colour ‘Orange Appeal’ which is said to sell on sight.

The single most important thing about growing geraniums from seed is to start them early! For most of them even early January is slightly late—better to start them just before Christmas. For full information I suggest consulting the various seed company Websites—for example Stokes Seeds offers great directions for each particular type.

When the seed-type geraniums started gaining a much larger percentage of the overall market, the cutting-geranium-people kind of cleaned up their act and there were far fewer cases of virused plants being sold. Maybe you just happened to hit plants from a grower who took too many shortcuts.

Just enough space left to write briefly about our garden here. It has been and continues to be an excellent summer with wonderful, but not sizzling temperatures. There was literally no rain in the last week of June, and all of July, but last week we actually had a light, continual rain for about 1½ days during which time we were able to give the well and irrigation system a respite for two whole days!

Outstanding in the garden right now are my standard Pentas at the door to my office, and the Gloriosa lilies, trained on a trellis, as well as two newer herbaceous perennial plant additions.

The Pentas did not over-winter a year ago well, so last winter we moved it into the house (cool) at a bright north-facing window. It kept most of its green foliage, and had a few flowers throughout the winter. I pruned it slightly (I could easily have pruned it shorter for a more compact plant) in early spring and you see the result here.

We managed to keep the Gloriosa lilies (Gloriosa ‘Rothschildiana’) over the winter by putting the pot/trellis in the non-heated garage for the winter months. The tubers were undisturbed. In early spring we brought the pot back into some heat (sunny, unheated greenhouse) and they began to grow. You can see the results!

The two new additions are Berkheya purpurea ‘Silver Spikes’, and the Blackberry lily (Belamcanda chinensis ‘Freckle Face’). The former is a rosette-forming thistle-like perennial native to South Africa with spiky lance-shaped grey-green leaves. It is an excellent architectural plant but is totally thorned! Large grey-purple daisies grow up over rosettes of spiny leaves. Fairly hardy, it needs sun and good drainage. Apparently it is fairly hardy, needs sun and good drainage. We’ll see how it does.

The Blackberry lily is a close cousin to the familiar bearded Iris. It forms a low clump of green sword-shaped leaves, with taller stems of cup-shaped bright golden-yellow flowers, speckled with orange. Attractive pods appear later, which split open to reveal clusters of black seeds. Seed pods make unique dried flowers for arrangements. It is said to be attractive to butterflies.

We have more “new” items in the garden as well, but they will have to wait until another week.

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