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Pelargoniums and Geraniums, garden plants that we are most familiar with, but how well do you know our indigenous species and can you distinguish between the two?

As you would expect botanical names describe a plant characteristic and in this case it is the appearance of the fruit, Pelargonium from the Greek pelargos or stork, hence Stork’s-bill and Geranium from the Greek geranos, or crane, Crane’s-bill.

Austral Stork's-bill
Austral Stork’s-bill

Soft Crane's-bill
Soft Crane’s-bill

 Our initial plant observation generally starts with the habit or manner in which a plant grows; Stork’s-bills are perennial herbs with clump like growth, whereas the Crane’s-bill’s similar herbaceous growth tends to be scrambling, often over other vegetation.

The leaves provide an obvious difference, those of the Stork’s-bill generally being oval to round with a noticeably wider leaf base. The leaf margins are scalloped or lobed whereas the leaves of the Crane’s-bill tend to be rounded to kidney-shaped and have deeply divided leaf margins.

From the vivid magenta flowers of Magenta Stork’s –bill, Pelargonium rodneyanum through to the pale pink to almost white flowers of Soft Crane’s-bill, Geranium potentilloides var. potentilloides, these beautiful flowers provide further distinguishing clues.

An obvious difference is the arrangement of the flowers; Stork’s–bill having multiple flowers in a showy umbel whereas the flowers of the Crane’s-bill are arranged more discreetly, either solitary or in pairs.

Using your hand lens you will discover that the 5 petals of the Stork’s-bill differ from each other, the 2 larger ones being marked with darker blotches whilst the 3 smaller petals are not as significantly marked. Compare this to a Crane’s-bill flower to see the 5 unmarked petals, all of equal size.

Investigation of the sepals will reveal two interesting differences between the ‘Bills’; the Stork’s-bill has one noticeably longer sepal which contains a nectary gland, whereas the Crane’s-bill has nectary glands at the base of each sepal. The apex of the sepals of the Crane’s-bill also have a point or mucro, the length of this mucro can aid identification.

Flowers of Anglesea and Aireys Inlet – Margaret MacDonald 2009
Flora of the Otway Plain & Ranges Vol.2 – Enid Mayfield 2013
Flora of Victoria (online) Walsh and Entwistle

Gail Slykhuis 
Images: Margaret MacDonald & Ellinor Campbell