Catherine StewartA tale of two sisters – Big Pink and Big Red

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?

Pelargonium Big Pink and Big Red

Pelargonium Big Pink and Big Red

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.

Pelargonium rust

Pelargonium rust

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.

Pelargonium Big Red

Pelargonium Big Red

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.

Pelargonium Big Pink (left) and Big Red (right). As if you couldn't tell...

Pelargonium Big Pink (left) and Big Red (right). As if you couldn’t tell…

Pelargonium Big Pink

Pelargonium Big Pink

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 Red foliage

Big Red foliage






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.

Like this post? Why not share it with a friend?

Catherine Stewart

About Catherine Stewart

Award-winning garden journalist, blogger and photographer; writer for garden magazines and co-author of 'Waterwise Gardening'; landscape designer turned landscape design judge and critic; compulsive networker and lover of generally putting fingers in lots of pies. Particularly mud pies. Original creator of GardenDrum. South Coast NSW.

10 thoughts on “A tale of two sisters – Big Pink and Big Red

  1. Hey, that’s interesting. Big Red is a favourite of mine as well, and it’s the go-to hanging basket toughie I recommend for black-thumb customers at the nursery where I work. I’d assumed Big Pink is as good but noticed it didn’t flower as well in the nursery as Big Red, which is pretty much in bloom from spring until late autumn in our temperate climate. It’s a shame because, as you say, Big Red, is one of the few plants that lives up to its marketing hype, and it would have been nice if Big Pink did the same.
    However, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Daphne Eternal Fragrance, which is marketed as drought tolerant. I planted three in early spring in a position that gets three hours of sun late afternoon and, even with the multiple days of over 40C we’ve had, they’ve stayed green and healthy without ANY irrigation except for the occasional splash with the hose when I remember (once a week or less)!

  2. Hi Helen,
    Glad to hear your Daphne ‘Eternal Fragrance’ are doing well in the heat. This is a great variety that performs well in full sun unlike most other Daphnes – a testament to the 20 plus years of breeding effort that went into it. Keep an eye out this year for its sister – Spring Pink Eternal Fragrance – which opens as a pink flower and then fades to white.

    • Oh, Amanda, actually I think the pink is what I have. It was part of a catalogue sale, I believe. Either way, it HAS lived up to the hype!:-)

  3. Hmmm? Interesting. I’m a big fan of Big Red, not so much Big Pink ( it’s pink! Enough said. Not my favourite colour.) I’ve grown it for several years now and only once encountered rust. The solution was to ditch and replace with clean cuttings previously taken and which thankfully remained rust free. I think pelargoniums are really annuals in Sydney. Our summer humidity is the crusher and to try and resurrect a has-been plant that is so easy to propagate is a waste of time. The other key to growing them is very heavy feeding for the short time I have them with a constant supply of replacements.

  4. Aah, I too have had the blues with big red, although keeping rust under control at the moment. They are way more high maintenance plants than I had thought and I get browned off standing sentry over all the discoloured leaves. But worth it, indeed, when they are in full flowering glory. BTW Amanda, the daphne story I tell is a lot more woeful. I planted my so called heat tolerant eternal fragrances (three) in conditions v similar to Helen describes, but all died. Watered and fed them well, and while they struggled, I prayed over them, but heat and 40 deg temps delivered the killer blow. I was so thrilled to discover a variety that purported to be one that would grow in Qld, cos I love them, but they are just not suited here. Feel let down by the advertising on the labels and at local large hardware – and foolish about having bragged to sceptical friends from the south and NZ who said they would never grow here.

  5. Just bought another Big Red at the nursery and will give it triple boost love …. watch this space. The nurseryman also expressed widespread disappointment with the Big Pink…… “Grimm” ending indeed, Catherine!

  6. I also am in love with Big Red pelargonium. What a great performer, even in humid Queensland! I expected Big Pink to be as good, but in a few weeks it was covered in rust. A weak, pathetic, sparsely flowering cultivar, but still being sold at an exorbitant price to all of us suckers who have had so much success with Big Red.

  7. check the back of the labels for BIG RED and BIG PINK and many others . Many will say PROPAGATION PROHIBITED. which is B S. Unless a plant is protected by PLANT BREEDERS RIGHTS go straight ahead and propagate

    • Even plants protected by PBR can be propagated by home gardeners for their own use. It only prohibits resale of any of those plants (including in street stalls and markets). Also many PBRs are not renewed after an initial period and so plants may able to be propagated legally for sale after a few years.

  8. Hi my Big Red (3 so far out of about 15) have green flowers as well as Red on really healthy plants. Being told it was Green Virus I have pulled them out. Does anyone else have the problem.

Leave a Reply (no need to register)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.