Geranium phaeum

Ian and Teresa Moss choose their favourite varieties of Geranium phaeum, a versatile and easy-to-grow choice for a wide range of garden locations. - 29 February 2024

Now that we are (at least in theory!) retired from the nursery trade, most of you will be familiar with us for our collection of salvias, which we’ve developed during our retirement and from which we sell surplus plants at plant fairs during the season. But salvias are not our only passion, and those of you who know us of old will remember that our first major obsession was hardy geraniums, of which we used to stock about 70-80 varieties on our nursery at one time. Although we don’t grow them to sell now, we still have a good selection in our own garden, and amongst our favourites are the named varieties of Geranium phaeum, one of the earliest geraniums into flower.

Geranium phaeum is a British native and is found more widely through central and southern Europe. It also goes by the common names of Dusky Cranesbill or the rather sombre ‘Mourning Widow’, both of which are derived from the fact that the most well-known forms have dark violet or purple flowers. Geranium phaeum, in theory, is at its best in partial shade in moist but well-drained soil, but in our gardens has thrived in both sun and shade so long as the soil is not too dry (thus providing conclusive proof that plants don’t read gardening books!) The plants form neat cushions of attractive, deeply-lobed foliage, which in some varieties has dark marking or variegation. They flower at between 30cm and 90cm (most are around 60cm); the flowers are reflexed and held on tall stems above the foliage. Flowering time is from mid-April to mid-May (depending on variety and the season) and colours range from the familiar dark purples, through pinks and blues to white.

In terms of care, they’re very easy-going. They will benefit from a hard cut back after the spring flowering is over, which will result in a new batch of fresh and attractive foliage and a second flush of flowers. Cut back again in the autumn. Propagation is best done by division, and most varieties will form a good clump quite quickly. Geranium phaeum will also seed around gently, but won’t come true to type; however, seedlings may throw up interesting new flower colours or foliage markings which you may want to keep – if not, just weed them out.

Here are some of our favourite varieties:


This is one of the best of the dark varieties, with very deep purple, reflexed flowers with a white eye. The foliage is an attractive fresh green with no markings.



‘Chocolate Biscuit’

Well, you can’t pass up a Geranium with a name like that! Introduced by Robin Moss (no relation!), the flowers are a maroon colour and the foliage has brown marking at the nodes. Highly recommended.



‘Rise Top Lilac’

An absolutely stunning Geranium with lilac flowers with darker blue and white markings at the centre. Beautiful and bombproof! Our original plant came from Mike and Jenny Spiller at Elworthy Cottage Plants.



‘Waterer’s Blue’

This is probably our favourite phaeum at the moment, and from the photo you can understand why. The most exquisite pale blue flowers have a contrasting darker blue ring at the centre and are strongly reflexed. This is thriving in full sun in our garden here on the Welsh borders.



‘Robin’s Angel Eyes’

Another introduction from Robin Moss, this beautiful Geranium has deep pink flowers that fade gently to the centre, with a darker lilac ring.



‘Garage Door’

We love this Geranium, not only because the pale pink flower is beautiful but also because the name makes us chuckle. It was introduced by Beeches Nursery, who found the seedling by their garage door! Can you guess where ours is planted?




A Geranium that does what it says on the tin, with pure white flowers and yellow stamen. In our experience it’s usually the last of the phaeums into flower.



Variegated Foliage and Double Flowers

As mentioned above, cultivars of G. phaeum often have dark blotching on the leaves and some also have variegated foliage. Our choice of the best varieties are as follows:

‘Lavender Pinwheel’

This is a winner at all levels; the flowers are a wonderful two-tone lavender pink, and the foliage has strong dark blotching which is an attractive feature in its own right. The flowers look particularly striking when backlit by morning or evening sun.




Another fantastic variety, this has gold and green variegated foliage, with a beautiful maroon flower with white markings at the centre that complement the foliage perfectly.



‘Margaret Wilson’

A shorter flowering phaeum, at around 30cm, the main feature of this variety is its stunning variegated foliage. The flowers are a mauve-purple. The foliage on this one can scorch in full sun, so best in part shade, and the plant is relatively slow to bulk up compared to other varieties, but it is well worth the effort of finding the right site for it!




‘Joseph Green’

Our final choice is something completely different, a double-flowered form of G. phaeum. The flowers have a double layer of purple petals with a smaller inner ring of green-marked petals. It’s very unusual and quite stunning, and as a further bonus is a good doer that bulks up quickly. What more could you want?



In the Garden

Geranium phaeum is a versatile choice for herbaceous and mixed borders. It combines well with other spring-flowering perennials and bulbs, and the foliage makes a great contrast and backdrop for perennials that flower later in the season. They are an easy to grow and reliable choice for any garden.


Geranium phaeum 'Klepper'

Where to buy

A number of our participating nurseries grow selections of Geranium phaeum, with Elworthy Cottage Plants having a particularly good selection. They are also available by mail order from The Hardy Geranium Nursery; Many thanks to Suzie Dewey from the nursery for supplying some of the photos for this article.

Ian and Teresa Moss are retired nursery owners and obsessive compulsive gardens, and also former organisers of Rare Plant Fairs. They currently propagate salvias primarily for their own collection, but they do sell surplus plants through Rare Plant Fairs or for collection from their home on the Welsh borders. Full details and availability lists can be found on their website.