When I was a child geraniums meant just one thing – the bright red flowers growing in pots on people’s windowsills or in ranks in municipal flowerbeds. It was only when I became a gardener that I realized the wonderful versatility of this plant: wherever there’s a dull space in a border, there’s a geranium to fill it. And, it’s the same in the countryside. Now that grasses and tall rank vegetation have all but taken over the roadside verges, what shines out with spots of brilliant blue? Meadow cranesbill – its great clumps and large five-petalled flowers defying dust, exhaust fumes and, latterly, drought. Go into Strid Woods and, upstream of the Cavendish Pavilion and you’ll find small stands of the pretty wood cranesbill – a more violet-blue and with white centres to the flowers.
In fact, there are several variety of cranesbill, and a walk in early summer might well include a hunt-the-cranesbill competition – finding not just the taller plants already mentioned but also their smaller relatives – the ubiquitous herb Robert brightening many a dull and dusty patch with its candy-pink flowers; shining cranesbill with its dark red stems curving out from its shallow-rooted base; and the pretty little cut-leaved cranesbill which nestles among sparse grasses in dry places. The newly honoured Sun Lane Nature Reserve in Burley would be a good place to start. Because of its history – starting out as the village tip – it holds many botanical surprises brought in with the reclamation materials or surviving garden escapes. Among the latter is French cranesbill, a plant that originated in south-western France.
All these geraniums get their common name from the shape of the fruit – a round seedpod ending in a long straight ‘beak’. Of course, cranes were once common in our area. You’ve only to look at some of the old place and field names – Cranshaw – cranes’ copse – and, using the Norse variant ‘tran’ for crane, we have Traneker (kjarr being an old Norse word for marsh) or, indeed, Tranmere. They figured largely on menus for medieval feasting, and, more romantically, indicated the coming of Spring with their graceful dancing. It’s good to know that there is now a project to re-introduce them into the Somerset Levels, and, as to the Yorkshire Dales, – a pair was seen last year circling above Silsden Reservoir, presumably finding their way without any human agency.