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5 july 2015

Reaktion Books kicked off their Botanical series (yet one more for me to keep up with!) by publishing Kasia Boddy's Geranium a couple of years ago. What I didn't know about geraniums filled far more than Boddy's brief volume, but it's helped me catch up a bit.

Geraniums are innocuous and commonplace (my previous image of them was basically "red with green leaves"), but perhaps for that very reason, their study reveals numerous complexities. For one thing, most flowers we call "geraniums" are actually pelargoniums, a taxonomic distinction that Boddy establishes perhaps a bit too abruptly at the start (as if we already knew what true geraniums were). After my initial confusion had been set straight by a trip to Wikipedia, I could see what she was establishing: no less than the occupation of an entire socio-ecological niche, once held by a humble European plant (the geranium), by a showy South African invader (the pelargonium).

Much of Boddy's volume is thus taken up with, as she puts it,

the transformation of the geranium, in fact and in the popular imagination, from coveted hothouse exotic to "filler" plant, the reliable mainstay of window boxes and bedding schemes. (67)
When the 19th century began, a geranium craze was underway that threatened to make Dutch tulip fever seem like a local plant swap. By the year 1900, geraniums were the most tediously commonplace of front-garden annuals and windowbox flowers. Yet, Boddy observes, geraniums came to symbolize modest family values as well as suburban kitsch. In fact, the difference between modesty and kitsch may depend on the observer's prejudices. The growing and display of flowers is never socially neutral.
Sometimes it seemed as if all that a satirist of the middle classes needed to do was mention a geranium and the work of exposing conventionality, pretension, and "stiffness" was done … [But] socialist attacks on the alienation of industrial mass culture were sometimes hard to distinguish from simple snobbery about that culture's consumers. (131, 97)
Cultural tensions continued to find representation in geraniums in the 20th century. Modern art arrived at no consensus about the geranium. On the one hand, it was a silly, mawkish, Dickensian plant, bourgeois or worse, and some writers (Boddy cites Aldous Huxley and David Gasgoyne) delighted in imagining the mass destruction of geranium beds. T.S. Eliot was much possessed by geraniums, and not always in a good way. But the same cheerful normality of the plant led to its becoming a positive emblem for writers as diverse as Proust, Katherine Mansfield, and D.H. Lawrence. Claude Monet, Childe Hassam, and Angelo Morbelli made striking use of geraniums in their Impressionist canvases, and Boddy reads their art with insight, appreciation, and care.

I was hyper-alert for geranium sightings after reading Geranium, but Fourth-of-July weekend in Texas is not the best time or place for the pelargonium. There are none at all in my partner's lavish but native, acclimated, and xeric backyard garden. Now that I know Boddy's delightful and thought-provoking book, I will be watchful to observe the uses people make of a flower I'd always overlooked.

Boddy, Kasia. Geranium. London: Reaktion, 2013.