It dawned on me earlier this year that I had never been to France when it was, well, warm and sunny! Why was that? I always wanted to go to France in the summertime, but crowds and prices always made me choose other times. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love those fall and winter rainy days in Paris where you carry an umbrella, wear a hat, scarf and of all things–a raincoat! For this gal, who lives in sunny southern California, such weather is very exotic!
Follow along our Finding France: Los Angeles series for videos and stories from the City of Light to the City of Angels.
Visiting Villages in Alsace
But on this trip I longed to see France in the SUN. So after some research, I found that early September was less expensive and there was a good chance that weather would still be warm. More climate study led me to decide to go Colmar, one of France’s beautiful villages in Alsace. My reasoning was, Alsace is one of the sunniest areas of the country, and Colmar is the second driest city in all of France! (Marseilles on the Mediterranean is the only place with less rain.) I got what I was looking for!
Alsace Flower Power
The sun really brought out the colors in the Haut-Rhin area of Alsace in eastern France, where Colmar is located. It was “jaw-droppingly” spectacular! Besides Colmar, we visited, a number of other tiny villages in Alsace. Photography does not do justice to these places.
These are the “flower villages” or “floral towns.” For the last 60 years, locations all over France compete for the prestigious designation of “Villes et Villages Fleuris.” Today this title has come to mean more than just a town or village with a prolific display of flowers. It is also now synonymous with “quality of life.”
Alsace has dozens of these towns. Besides Colmar, I went to Eguisheim, Ribeauvillé, Kaysersberg and Riquewihr. Flowers were everywhere in these medieval villages, especially geraniums, which everyone recognizes as the quintessential French window-box plant. So I started wondering where all this started. It turns out there is quite a history to these flowers.
Geraniums by any Name
First a quick dose of botany —geraniums are also sometimes called pelargoniums and vice versa. They are actually two different plants but both are members of the family Geraniaceae. Experts know all the differences. But a simple rule is that true geraniums have five similar petals, and pelargoniums have two upper petals that are different from the three lower petals. To us lay folks, both species look pretty much alike.
It seems that if you refer to either of the species as “geraniums” everyone knows what you are talking about, even though technically that’s not correct. I’m told that pelargoniums are mostly what we see in French window boxes. And this species seems to have more French history.
Pelargoniums are native of southern Africa. Their name comes from the Greek word for stork, “pelargós” because the early Dutch botanist who first brought the plants to Europe thought their seed heads looked like a stork’s beak. It’s believed the pelargonium seeds were passed from the Netherlands to France in the early 1600s where they really caught on. It makes sense because in France, everyone loves storks. They believe the big birds bring good luck, fertility and prosperity. At least, that’s what they told me in Alsace, where storks are sacred. So anything related to a stork is a very good thing to have!
True geraniums, on the other hand, are natives of the eastern Mediterranean region. The name comes from the Greek word “geranos” which means “crane” because its seeds look like a crane’s bill. Yes, it’s funny. These two flower species are named after two similar but different birds, just like the two flowers are similar but different. By the way, in some places geraniums are called “cranebills.” (Are you completely confused now?)
The People’s Plant
By the late 1700s, the pelargonium had become very popular all over France, especially in Paris because they came in bright colors, were easily to grow, could stand neglect (little water) and didn’t seem to mind dirty city air and dust.
It is said that the flower made its way to the United States in 1786 when Thomas Jefferson took stem cuttings from Paris back to the USA where he gave them to friends and family. Today, stem cuttings are still the most popular way to propagate these plants. (I am just going to call them all “geraniums” now. OK?)
The popularity of geraniums soared in the 19th century because the first Empress of France, Joséphine Bonaparte, who was said to be obsessed with flowers, put the plants in her gardens. That made the easy to grow geranium very fashionable. Plus it was a pleasure that even the working class could afford to cultivate, just like the aristocrats.
French Window Box Wonders
The middle and working class didn’t have vast acres of manicured gardens, but they could put window planters out. Growing these plants also made bright colors available to everyone, not just the lords and ladies. As more and people took up window-box gardening, more color was added to the landscapes of the cities and villages.
Artists of the time included the geranium in their masterpieces. Look for the geraniums in the works of Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne and Pierre August Renoir to name just a few!
I couldn’t help but think of the characteristics important to those French painters when I saw the changing qualities of the light so dramatically emphasized by the colors in the window-box gardens of the flower villages in Alsace. Picture perfect to say the least!
A Great Perennial Souvenir
I didn’t bring any cuttings home with me from France. I think today’s customs might have a hard time with that. Luckily, our Francophile 3rd U.S. President did it for us. So, this winter if you longing for some sunny French colors, try getting some geraniums. When placed in a sunny window, geraniums will thrive as a houseplant even in the coldest months. In spring, gradually move them back outdoors after the last frost. Now we all can have a touch of sunny France all year long! ALLEZ!
How to Grow Geraniums
Wondering how to grow geraniums in window boxes or pots? Here are some of the secrets to success:
- Geraniums will grow well in containers of all shapes and sizes, as long as they have drainage holes.
- Pack the container with loose, well-draining soil.
- Place the pot or container in sunny location, away from damaging winds.
- Soil in pots tends to get warm, so growing geraniums in containers requires regular watering. The drainage holes help prevent root rot, so you don’t have to wait for the soil to dry out in between waterings.
- How much water? You need to watch your plants to see what they need, but don’t let them wilt. Wilting will cut down on flower production. But geranium hate to be waterlogged so don’t over water.
- Regularly prune by pinching the growing points to encourage branching especially if you are growing your geraniums indoors.
Find France for Yourself
The flower villages of France
Things to see in Alsace