Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Cultivated Plants by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Cultivated Plants by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Horseshoe Geranium

Teacher's Story

The geraniums perhaps do more to brighten the world than almost any other cultivated flowers. They will grow for every one, whether for the gardener in the conservatory of the rich, or in a tin can on the windowsill of the crowded tenement of the poor. And it is interesting to know that this common plant has a cultivated ancestry of two hundred years' standing. These geraniums, which are really not geraniums botanically but are pelargoniums,  originally came from southern Africa, and the two ancestors of our common bedding geraniums were introduced into England in 1710 and 1714.

The geranium is of special value to the teacher, since it is available for study at any season of the year, and has a most interesting blossom. The single-flowered varieties should be used for this lesson, since the blossoms that are double have lost their original form. Moreover, the geranium's blossom is so simple that it is of special value as a subject for a beginning lesson in teaching the parts of a flower; and its leaves and stems may likewise be used for the first lessons in plant structure.

The stem is thick and fleshy, and is downy on the new growth; there is much food stored in these stems, which accounts for the readiness with which cuttings from them will grow. Wherever a leaf comes off the stem, it is guarded by two stipules at the base; these stipules often remain after the leaves have fallen, thus giving the stem an unkempt look. The leaves are of various shapes, although of one general pattern; they are circular and beautifully scalloped and lobed, with veins for every lobe radiating from the petiole; they are velvety above and of quite different texture beneath, and many show the dark horseshoe which gives the name to this variety. The petiole is usually long and stiff and the leaves are set alternately upon the stem.

The flower has five petals, and at first glance they seem of much the same shape and position; but if we look at them carefully, we see that the upper two are much narrower at the base and project farther forward than do the lower three. Moreover, there are certain lines on these upper petals all pointing toward the center of the flower; these are the nectar guide-lines, and if we follow them we find a deep nectar-well just at the base of these upper petals and situated above the ovary of the flower. No other flower shows a prettier plan for guiding insects to the hidden sweets, and in none is there a more obvious and easily seen well of nectar. It extends almost the whole length of the flower stem, the nectar gland forming a hump near the base of the stem. If we thrust a needle down the whole length of this nectar tube we can see that this bright flower developed its nectar especially for some long-tongued insect, probably a butterfly. It is interesting to note that in the double geranium where the stamens have been all changed to petals and where, therefore, no seeds are formed, this nectar-well has been lost.

There are five sepals, the lower one being the largest. But the geranium is careless about the number of its stamens; most flowers are very good mathematicians, and if they have five sepals and five petals they are likely to have five or ten stamens. The geranium often shows seven anthers, but if we look carefully we may find ten stamens, three of them without anthers. But this is not always true; there are sometimes five anthers and two or three filaments without anthers. The color of the anthers differs with the variety of the flower. The stamens broaden below, and their bases are joined making a cup around the lower part of the ovary. The pistil is at the center of the flower and has no style, but at the summit divides into five long, curving stigmas; but again the geranium cannot be trusted to count, for sometimes there are seven or eight stigmas. Although many of our common varieties of geraniums have been bred so long that they have almost lost the habit of producing seed, yet we may often find in these single blossoms the ovary changed into the peculiar, long, beaklike pod, which shows the relationship of this plant to the cranesbill or wild geranium.


Diagram, flower of the horseshoe geranium.

S, sepals;   P, petals;   A, anther;   F, filament;   m, pistil;   St, stigma;   N, opening to nectar tube.

When the buds of the geranium first appear, all of them are nestled in a nest of protecting bracts, each bud being enclosed in its own protecting sepals. But soon each flower stem grows longer and droops and often the bracts at its base fall off; from this mass of drooping buds, the ones at the center of the cluster lift up and open their blossoms first. Often, when the outside flowers are in bloom, those at the center have withered petals but are hidden by their fresher sisters.

It would be well to say something to the pupils about those plants which have depended upon man so long for their planting that they do not develop any more seed for themselves. In connection with the geraniums, there should be a lesson on how to make cuttings and start their growth. The small side branches or the tips of the main stems may be used as cuttings. With a sharp knife make a cut straight across. Fill shallow boxes with sand, place them in a cool room and keep them constantly moist; plant the cuttings in these boxes, putting the stems for one-third of their length in the sand. After about a month the plants may be repotted in fertile soil. The fall is the best time to make cuttings.


Lesson CLXIV

The Horseshoe Geranium

Leading thought—The geraniums are very much prized as flowers for ornamental beds. Let us see why they are so valued.

Method—A variety of geranium with single flowers should be chosen for this purpose, and it may be studied in the schoolhouse window or in the garden. As the parts of this flower are of a very general type, it is an excellent one with which to teach the names and purposes of the flower parts. Each child can make a little drawing of the sepals, petals, stamens and pistil, and label them with the proper names.


1. What sort of a stem has the geranium? Is it smooth or downy? What makes the geranium stem look so rough and untidy?

2. Study the leaf. Show by description or drawing its shape, its wings, its veins. What are its colors and texture above? Beneath? Is the petiole long or short? What grows at the base of the petiole where it joins the stem? What marking is there on the leaf, which makes us call this a "horseshoe geranium"? Are there other geraniums with leaves of similar shape that have no horseshoe mark?

3. Study the flower. Are the petals all the same size and shape? How many of them are broad? How many narrow? Do the narrow ones project in front of the others? Do these have guide-lines upon them? Where do these lines point? Find the nectar-well. How deep is it? Does it extend almost the entire length of the flower stem? For what insects must it have been developed? Are there nectar-tubes in the stems of the geraniums with double flowers? Why?

4. How many sepals are there? Are they all the same size? Where is the largest?

5. How many stamens can you see? What is the color of the filaments and of the anthers? How are the stamens joined at their bases? Can you find any stamens without anthers?

6. Where is the pistil situated? Can you see the ovary, or seed-box? How many stigmas? Describe their color and shape.

7. In what part of the flower will the seeds be developed? How does the geranium fruit look? Sketch the pod. Do the geraniums develop many seeds? Why not? Do you know the seed-pod of the wild geranium? If so, compare it with the pod of this plant.

8. Take a flower cluster when the flowers are all in the bud, and note the following: When the buds first appear, what protects them? What becomes of these bracts later? How do the sepals protect the bud? Are the bud stems upright and stiff or drooping? How many buds are there in a cluster?

9. Take notes on successive days as follows: What happens to the stem as the bud gets ready to bloom? Is it a central or an outside blossom that opens first? How many new blossoms are there each day? How long is it from the time that the first bud opens until the last bud of the cluster blossoms? What has this to do with making the geranium a valuable ornamental plant?

10. Make some geranium cuttings, and note how they develop into new plants. Place one of the cuttings in a bottle of water and describe how its roots appear and grow.

"God made the flowers to beautify

The earth, and cheer man's careful mood;

And he is happiest who hath power

To gather wisdom from a flower,

And wake his heart in every hour

To pleasant gratitude."


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