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growing geraniums from seed

Growing Sticky Purple Geranium (Geranium viscosissimum)

Any blogger posting an article titled "All About Geraniums" is a big fat liar, unless they're publishing their blog from a server farm as big as Arizona. Geraniums have their own family (Geraniaceae) and multiple genera; there are hundreds of geraniums indigenous to almost every part of the world. These are not boring, run-of-the-mill garden plants, though the casual gardener may never refer to the plant as any other name than plain ol' "geranium.”

Unless you're in Europe, that is, where geranium is often called "cranesbill" due to the shape of its seed pods. (Geranos is Greek for crane.)

We'd go bonkers trying to outline the unique characteristics, history, and growing preferences of each species, so we'll settle on a popular, easy-to-grow domestic species: Sticky purple geranium.

Viscosissimum refers to "viscous," a nod to sticky purple geranium's sap.

G. viscosissimum is native to the mountains and foothills of the Western United States, British Columbia, and southern Alberta, particularly the Cascades, northern Rockies and Great Plains. You'll find them in pine forests, mountain meadows, and hillside scrub. Once in a while, they'll venture into grassy plains, as they do in North Dakota and Wyoming, but they're at home at elevations as high as 10,000 feet.

Cultural Significance

G. viscosissimum was an important medicinal plant for several Native American cultures, including:

  • Sylix/Okanogan: Better known as the Okanogan, this culture is native to the Washington/British Columbia border.
  • Nlaka'pmx, Colville and Sanpoil: The Nlaka'pmx, Colville and Sanpoil are subcultures within Interior Salish people, indigenous to the plateau and mountainous regions of Eastern Washington, Northern Idaho, Montana and British Columbia.
  • Blackfoot/Siksika: The Blackfoot tribes dominated the Great Plains, and used G. viscosissimum when they encountered it in eastern Montana, the Dakotas, and NE Wyoming near what is now Yellowstone National Park.

Native Americans made poultices, washes, teas, and tinctures from the plant's roots and leaves to treat irritated eyes, head colds, and skin conditions. It was also used as a clotting agent and food preservative, according to Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel E. Moerman (as shared by USDA/NRCS).

Sticky purple geranium is also an ecologically important species. A study in eastern Washington found that when G. viscosissimum declined in the subject area, so did the numbers of native pollinators. Perhaps these results reflect more than just the botanical diversity suffered by the Inland Northwest and Great Plains region.

Geranium's General Symbolism

It seems a little awkward to segue from the plant's practical uses by people who, before Europeans showed up, had no use for Hallmark stores or floral delivery services, but sometimes it's still fun to take a look at European traditions as they're applied to different plant species. Here's what perennially perky tells us about geraniums in the broader sense:

  • Used as a gift of welcome, or for a host; it's generally associated with meetings.
  • A gift for brides. Or, you can just send them packets of geranium seeds from Seed Needs so the plant won't die during her honeymoon.
  • Symbolizes stupidity. This one is specific to the horseshoe geranium, but we still thought it was worth including.
  • Friendship and gentleness: If the giftee thinks you're calling them stupid, they'll throw us an underhand pitch to chuck the flower pot at your head with slightly lower velocity.

Some modern herbalists claim that sticky purple geranium is a powerful love potion ingredient. Could it have anything to do with the sticky insect-trapping substance on its foliage? Read on, and decide for yourself!

Just Your Garden Variety Purple Protocarnivorous Plant

Is your region affected by drought and water restrictions? If so, you're probably hunting down drought-tolerant plant species, or planning gardens that reflect the low-maintenance native flora of your area. Geranium viscosissimum might be the right pick for you. It's an extremely easy plant to care for, once its established. It's hardy in poor soils, doesn't feel left out beyond the reaches of your irrigation zones, and it's airy structure is suitable for planting among woodier perennials such as lavender and rosemary without blocking air circulation.

Sticky purple geraniums have deeply-lobed 2" to 5" leaves with 5 to 9 segments; these leaf patterns are strikingly different from the rounded leaves most commonly associated with geraniums.

Upright, slightly hairy, branching stems grow from a small, dense base; the hairs themselves are glandular, producing a viscous, tacky sap. The delicate, pink-to-violet flowers have five purple-veined petals, each slightly resembling a heart. Each flower head is between 1/2" and 1 1/5" across with dark, protruding stamens. The petals are often concave, and the blossoms clustered.

G. viscosissimum and many other geraniums have blue pollen. They attract bees and beneficial wasps, and butterflies love their nectar. But some smaller insects should take care, as the plant's sap—or, possibly, microbes grown in the substance—trap and break down insect proteins, allowing these geraniums to absorb the nutrients. Plants with this amazing talent are called protocarnivorous.

G. viscosissimum don't do very well as container plants. They're also called "sticky wild geranium," and "wild" says it all. If you do try growing geraniums from seed in a container, be sure to select a large, tall pot to accommodate its long taproot.

USDA Hardiness Zones: Herbaceous perennial in zones 3 through 9.

Sunlight Preferences: Full sun or light shade.

Moisture Requirements: They're drought tolerant but like consistent moisture until they're established. Consider giving them deep, intermittent waterings. In the wild, they thrive in areas that receive anywhere from 10 to 25 inches of annual rainfall.

Soil Preferences: Rugged sticky purple geranium isn't picky about soil quality as long as it drains well. They establish themselves in soil or craggy rocks with their deep, strong taproots and manage to scrounge up nutrients the way we'd dig for change in the sofa.

Plant Height: 1' to 3' tall

Plant Width: 1' to 1.5' spread

Bloom Period: May through September

Maintenance: These long-lived perennials should be divided every few years, and they tend to become woody with age. Otherwise, they're as low-maintenance as you can get. They don't need fertilization, or classical music and soothing conversation, either. If they could talk, they'd tell you to take off and mind your own d*** business.

Pests & Diseases: Geraniums are generally very hardy and rarely succumb to insect infestations. As previously mentioned, they regard overly zealous gardeners as pests. Watch out for aphids, and geranium (a.k.a. tobacco) budworms. Powdery mildew is the plant's most worrisome disease, but relative to most other garden plants, it's barely an issue.

In their native environment, sticky purple geraniums serve as treats for all sorts of wildlife, from elk to tiny mice to seed-eating birds. It's safe to say that these aren't deer-resistant plants.

Harvesting: Sticky purple geraniums aren't good cut flowers, and we haven't found reliable information regarding the preparation of the plant for medicinal purposes.

Growing Sticky Purple Geraniums from Seed

Geranium viscosissimum rely on the freeze-thaw cycle trigger germination. Their seed husks are rough, and the natural grinding action and acidity from avian digestive systems also aids in breaking down the seed walls. Germination rates tend to be low with sticky purple geranium seeds, so be sure to treat them prior to planting and purchase your seeds from a reputable source.

Seed Treatment: Rub each seed a few times with an Emery board, followed by a good 12-hour soak in hot water (24 in cold). Another method recommended by G. viscosissimum enthusiasts is dunking the seeds in a very hot (but not boiling) bath for about 10 seconds before immediately refrigerating them in ice cold water for 24 hours. A third option is to use the Emery board (scarification) step followed by a 30-day cold stratification period. If you have no idea what we're talking about, that's ok! Just read our blog post, "The Dirt on Successful Seed Germination."

When to Plant Outdoors: Plant treated seeds in early fall, or in spring after the first frost.

When and How to Plant Indoors: Okay, back to cold stratification again. If you plan to start your seedlings indoors, treat your seeds with a method suggested above, plant your seeds in deep planting pots (moist, sterile seedling mix with a bit of sand mixed in) 8 to 10 weeks before your last spring frost, wrap a loose baggie around your seedlings, and refrigerate them for about 30 days. Then, you can let them warm up in a cold frame or sunny window until they reach a couple inches tall, at which point you can transplant them.

Seed Depth: 1/4"

Seed Spacing: 6" to 18" apart. Since the foliage is fairly sparse, crowding isn't much of an issue.

Days to Germination: 7 to 21 days. After a period of cold, germination is triggered at about 65°F.

Transplanting Tips: Don't wait too long to transplant your sticky purple geraniums, as their fast-growing roots are sensitive to transplanting.

Source Your Native and Introduced Ornamental Seeds from Seed Needs

Do you see geraniums in a different light, now that you've learned a little bit about the plant's diverse family? We love finding out more about the cultures who once relied upon the plants in our seed catalog. Imagine looking at the garden you've created; each species can give you a reason to ponder the role it played in history, wherever it came from.

We're proud to offer this native species here at Seed Needs. Today's sticky purple geraniums are no different from those harvested and used for generations by First Nation people; both are American originals whose histories are worth remembering.
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