This well-behaved herbaceous perennial performs beautifully in a wide range of conditions, forming low mounds of deeply cut, dark green leaves and showy clusters of pink to purple flowers in early spring. The flowers give way to beaked seed capsules shaped like crane’s bills (other common names are wild cranesbill and spotted cranesbill, which also refers to the mottling of the leaves). The distinctive capsules and palmately lobed leaves are distinguishing characteristics of plants in this genus. Wild geranium is usually found in the rich soils of deciduous woodlands (another common name is wood geranium), where long-lived clones of the original plant form a dense groundcover. Like other spring ephemerals, wild geranium races to flower and reproduce before the emerging tree canopy blocks the sun. Once the canopy has filled in, the plant flourishes in part or full shade. It gradually forms large clumps, spreading by thick, horizontal rhizomes that lie just beneath the surface of the soil. This wildflower flourishes when provided with consistent moisture and cooler soils, but it also tolerates occasional drought. The foliage shows stress and dies back more quickly in full sun. Withered leaves may be lightly sheared back and shaped to revitalize the plant. Deer and rabbits tend not to eat it.
Wild geranium is native to eastern and central North America. In the wild, it’s frequently found with other natives, including bellwort, bloodroot, Solomon’s seal, false Solomon’s seal, ferns, white trillium, common mayapple, and woodland phlox. Wild geranium has larger flowers than other native geranium species, and each rounded petal has faint lines running from tip to base that function as nectar guides for pollinating insects, including a specialist bee, Andrena distans, that only pollinates plants in the family Geraniaceae. The genus name comes from the Greek word geranos, which means “crane,” in reference to the beaked fruit capsules. The long, narrow fruits have five “spring-loaded” carpals with a single seed at the base of each section. Once the fruits have ripened, the carpals spring upwards, and each section flicks its seed a short distance from the mother plant. The seeds and flowers attract beneficial insects, song birds, butterflies, and small mammals.
Native habitats include dry or moist woods, woodland edges, dappled meadows, rich forest, thickets, and shaded roadside areas. Use in shade and fern gardens, woodland slopes, shady borders, and massed as a groundcover.
Grows 1-2’ tall and 2-3’ wide.
Prefers part or full shade; tolerates full sun with consistent moisture.
Performs best in moist, rich, well-drained soils but adapts to clay and other soils.
Blooms April-May with clusters of 2-5 upturned flowers (known as a corymb or floppy umbel) at the top of hairy stems. Each 5-petaled, saucer-shaped, 1-1 ½” flower has 5 green sepals and 10 yellow stamens surrounding a single pistil with 5 carpals. Fruits mature around June.
Basal leaves emerge in spring on long petioles with coarse white hairs. Hairy leaves are up to 6” wide with 5 deep lobes and irregular, coarsely serrated margins. Undersides of leaves have coarse, white hairs while surfaces have fine, white hairs. Upright flower stems have a pair of opposite, short-stalked, 3-lobed leaves similar to the basal leaves.
Host plant for larvae of 25 species of moths, including American bordered sallow, white-marked tussock (pictured here), and two specialists. Honey bees, bumble bees, many types of native solitary bees, and syrphid flies are most common pollinators. Butterflies, skippers, moths, ants, and beetles also visit the flowers. Chipmunks and song birds eat the seeds. Sustains little damage from deer and rabbits.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Native Americans used the plant to treat diarrhea, thrush, inflamed gums, open sores, hemorrhages, hemorrhoids, and cholera.
Wild geranium extract is currently marketed as an anti-inflammatory and anti-hemorrhaging substance.
The flowers, leaves, and roots contain high amounts of tannins. Many sources say they are bitter but edible. The flowers and leaves are sometimes used raw in salads, and the leaves may be cooked with other greens.
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