Once upon a time there were two sisters, Big Pink and Big Red. As the older one grew strong and fair in the sunshine, with flaming red locks, so the other, younger sister shrivelled and faded away, cursed by the dreaded Pelargonium Rust Fairy, who perhaps had been overlooked when the invitations to the plant launch went out. Should we wait for the handsome Prince Antifungal to arrive, or shall we wave a sad goodbye to Big Pink forever?
I’ve always loved the vibrancy of pelargoniums but, living in Sydney, the zonal types with large flowers inevitably fall victim to various rusts and mildews, even when grown in a pot. There’s a couple of varieties that have been around for a long time that you’ll find in older gardens that seem more immune and, of course, there’s always the more delicate ivy-leaf type that grow quite well. Then came along Big Red, and life for the pelargonium growers changed for the better.
Zonal pelargoniums (still often confusingly called ‘geraniums’ in Australia) are usually shrubby plants with large rounded leaves bearing a distinct circular marking, giving them the name ‘zonal’. Zonal pelargoniums have large, showy heads of flowers held well above the foliage, so they’re very noticeable from a distance. Reds, pinks, white, orange and apricot are the common flower colours, and there are plenty of variegated leaf forms too.
As a lover of vibrant colour, I’ve tried, with very limited success to grow several zonal pelargoniums. They will grow OK for a short while and then a few days of Sydney’s muggy humidity and the first signs of fungal rust start to appear – little orangey spots on the older leaves which then soon start to yellow and shrivel and drop. The only zonal that survives is an old lime-leafed variety with apricot flowers. The colours of the flowers and the leaves are a bit of a weird mix I’d have to say, but its ability to resist rust, stay lime-coloured in some shade (and that fact that it’s not a profuse flowerer) give it a home in several parts of my garden.
In contrast, the ivy-leafed varieties are usually very successful. Their glossier leaves seem to resist rusts and mildews, but they are lax, sprawling plants that can’t be coaxed into clumping up and really putting on a show. That said, I have a deep magenta pelargonium which stops my eye whenever I pass it by.
Then came Pelargonium ‘Big Red’. Woo hoo! A hybrid between a zonal and an ivy-leaf, ‘Big Red’ both promised and delivered. Apart from the nightly damage inflicted by the possums and the odd nuisance snail, ‘Big Red’, flowered its head off from the get-go, on a small, neat shrub. I was IN LOVE.
So when its new younger sister Pelargonium ‘Big Pink’ came along, I was destined to be doubly in love. Vibrant hot pink flowers on the same style plant, oh my, yes please! I bought two ‘Big Pink’ plants. One I potted up and positioned alongside her older Big Red sisters. The other I planted in a hot, sunny part of the front garden.
Six months on, it’s alas and alack for sad Big Pink in both locations. Her dress is tattered and rusty, while Big Red looks like the belle of the ball.
Big Pink manages only a few flowers every now and then, compared to Big Red and her rampant style.
As a (mostly) non-spraying type of gardener, Prince Antifungal will not be riding by my garden, which means Big Pink, will have a Grimm ending to her fairytale beginning.