Pel of a show: Pelargoniums aren't just for old ladies and deserve a second look

The flowers are known as denizens of macramé pot-holders and stale pub window-boxes, says Emma Townshend.

'Pelargonium' is a bad name, isn't it? Heavy and clunky, it sounds immediately like the ugliest plant in the world. Actually it signifies, in a more correct botanical sense, those cheery geraniums old ladies grow in macramé pot-holders in their porches. (Actually not just old ladies. If I had a porch, my pelargoniums would be in it. In macramé pot-holders.)

You may think that, even when given its more mellifluous common title of "geranium", these brightly coloured show-offs are still among the worst plants you can buy.

OK, pub window-boxes with geraniums in bright salmon-pink and scarlet might not convince everyone otherwise (though I feel they do encourage those who've been on the razzle so long they're already developing hangovers to wend their way home, thus performing a useful social function). But some geraniums/pelargoniums do have a more glamorous alternative life.

What about in those cool Spanish courtyards? The celebrated patio gardens of Cordoba are often fully equipped with geraniums, lined in terracotta holders right up to the roofline (occasionally creating an effect more like chickenpox than tasteful horticulture). Lines of terracotta, interspersed with spider plants: the whole effect is festival. The cheerful painted pots against the crisp white walls, full of glorious bright blooms, in a space that is cool, shadowy and restful: the totality leaves the viewer with a huge smile.

Still, the overall impression is bright. Where does that leave the gardener who prefers their plants not quite so determinedly cheery? Well, how times have changed since the era of macramé pot-holders. These days there are spectacular arrays of tasteful pelargoniums plainly destined for the containers of those growers who possess more sense in a garden centre than I ever do.

With tiny, feathery flowers, in deep velvety shades, Pelargonium sidoides is a belter. The flowers are a deep ruby, and look almost like sunning butterflies, paused for a moment on the long green stems. Crocus.co.uk does these, as a three peat-pot set, for £17.99. Yes, you did read that right: tastefulness costs, and right here's where you start paying.

Another irresistible variety is "Chocolate Peppermint" (also £17.99, Crocus). This geranium is so tasteful that I'm not even sure what the flowers look like – folks grow it for the delicious leaves alone. Deeply veined and jagged in ivy-like appearance, each leaf has a dark-brown pattern in the centre. But touch the foliage and here's where the real treat starts to pay off: an astonishingly chocolatey-minty scent, as potent as anything Jo Malone has ever managed to devise.

Thinking about perfume, Sarah Raven stocks another heavy favourite, "Attar of Roses", which is currently on sale at special price. The flowers are a slightly shy pale pink, but the fragrance is swoony, and you soon find yourself wanting to sniff it again for another hit. A one-litre potful is £6.47 while stocks last.

And we haven't even got to the qualities I consider most important in the pelargonium: utter resistance to poor treatment. These plants are complete troopers. If you go away in August for two weeks and forget to arrange any babysitting, these are the only things in your garden that will still be gaily flowering at the end of it. OK, they would prefer watering. They would prefer a handful of slow-release feed in the pot when they're planted, come to think of it. But I love a plant that can handle a week or two of neglect; and for that reason, as well as all the aesthetic ones, my collection of slightly fancier pelargoniums grows on apace. It's just a pity about the name.

Get the look

1. Pelargonium 'mystery' There's a body on the carpet with these tattered, deeply lobed petals in blood-red set off against blue-green leaves. £17.99 for three plants, crocus.co.uk

2. Pelargonium 'choun cho' Trailing and ivy-leaved, with beautiful ruby-red flowers. £17.99 for three plants, Crocus

3. Pelargonium 'cottenham wonder' Gnarled, much-folded bright green leaves fielding sweet, tiny pink flowers. £9.47 for three rooted cuttings, sarahraven.com

4. Pelargonium echinatum 'Mrs Stapleton' Dainty, fairy-pink flowers floating on delicate stems. £17.99 for three plants, Crocus

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