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     "Geranium" is from the Greek "geranos", "crane", referring to the long, pointed seed pod that resembles a Crane's bill.  Linnaeus named this genus in 1753.

      The precise identification of Geranium species is often problematic.  As Stanley Welsh says in his 4th edition of A Utah Flora:  "Diagnostic criteria have been based previously on such features as kind of pubescence and its position on plant parts, but those features do not appear to be of primary diagnostic value.  Thus, keys are difficult to compose that will allow accurate identification of all specimens.  Because of these factors the following key [in Welsh's A Utah Flora] is tentative at best."

       Welsh's comments about the difficulty in identifying Geraniums are illustrated in the following partial chronology of the attempt to identify the species that we now call Geranium caespitosum, the first species shown below:

      The plant has endured at least eleven scientific name changes: the plant was first described and named in 1823 by Edwin James after he saw it (but did not collect a specimen) along the South Platte in Colorado in 1820.  James named the plant Geranium caespitosum and it was soon given the common name of "James Crane's Bill".  In 1847 Augustus Fendler collected a plant in the Santa Fe area along Santa Fe Creek and in 1849 Asa Gray described it and named it Geranium caespitosum.  Somehow another specimen collected by Fendler was described, also in 1849, by John Torrey who named it Geranium fremontii, "Fremont Crane's Bill".

       In 1862 George Engelmann named a plant Geranium fremontii variety parryi, Parry Crane's Bill, from a specimen collected by Charles Parry in Colorado in 1861.  Amos Heller renamed the Parry specimen, Geranium parryi.  And so on and so on. 

      All of these plants, and many others with other names, are apparently the same species, varying, perhaps, especially in pubescence and glandularity. 

      A re-examination of all specimens led full circle to James' original designation of G. caespitosum.  The Fremont and Parry designations (and others) are now considered the same as, or perhaps, varieties of Geranium caespitosum.

      Stanley Welsh sums the Geranium nomenclatural difficulties : "[This] is typical of the problems of interpretation of perennial geraniums generally; i.e., they tend to merge morphologically (hybridize?) when the taxa meet, and there are few, if any, definitive diagnostic features....   These problems have led to contradictory and often unsatisfactory treatments of our perennial geranium species."

      The three Geraniums shown on this page do have some characteristics that help somewhat in separating them:

1) Dimensions of floral parts.
2) Flower color.
3) Habitat.
4) Posture of the plants.
5) Leaf shape.

      Points 2-4 are evidenced by the photographs on this and the second page of Geranium photographs; I have added a side-by-side comparison of the leaves immediately below.

      In general we can say that it is relatively easy to distinguish G. caespitosum from G. richardsonii and G. viscosissimum, but it is quite difficult (often not possible) to distinguish G. richardsonii from G. viscosissimum.  In almost all keys, the latter two Geraniums are described with almost identical details.  It seems to be generally agreed that G. richardsonii is a slightly smaller plant in all parts, especially the style length, and that G. richardsonii often has white petals versus more purple petals of G. viscosissimum.  BUT both can have petals of the same color.  Strangely, it is generally agreed that G. richardsonii is more viscous, i.e., sticky, than G. viscosissimum (Sticky Geranium)! 

      It is also interesting to note that 20th century Colorado plant expert, H. D. Harrington, included G. richardsonii, but not G. viscosissimum, in his key to Colorado Geraniums.   

      Leaves of  G. caespitosum are 2-7 centimeters wide, are usually cut 3-5 times, and have more rounded lobes; G. richardsonii and G. viscosissimum leaves are 6-12 centimeters wide, are cut 5-7 times, but differ (probably!) in that G. richardsonii leaves have more sharply pointed lobes than G. viscosissimum.   Also notice that the main long lobes of G. richardsonii and G. viscosissimum project in all directions; those of G. caespitosum do not. 

Geranium caespitosum Geranium richardsonii Geranium viscosissimum

Click for more Geranium photographs.

Geranium caespitosum
Geranium caespitosum (Purple Wild Geranium)
Geraniaceae (Geranium Family)

Foothills, montane, subalpine. Woodlands. Summer.
West Mancos Trail, June 27, 2004.

This less common cousin of the very common white Wild Geranium (Geranium richardsonii) shown below, tends to lean and sprawl, has few flowers per plant, the flowers are gorgeous lilac to magenta, and the leaves have deep cuts and rounded lobes.  Stems are often red.  Purple Wild Geranium is often found in scattered ones and twos at dry trail-side hidden in grasses. 

The Latin word "caespitosum" is common botanical nomenclature meaning "growing in clumps".

Geranium viscosissimum
Geranium viscosissimum (Sticky Geranium)
Geraniaceae (Geranium Family)

Foothills, montane, subalpine. Woodlands. Summer.
Lone Mesa State Park, August 4, 2008.

Sticky Geranium grows from one to three feet tall with vivid purple flowers (appearing white in this photograph because of the sun).  The bracts and upper stem are often glandular (sticky), thus the scientific and common names.

The plant was first collected for science by Thomas Nuttall and was named by Friedrich Fischer and Carl Meyer. "Viscos" is Latin for "sticky" and "issimum" is the Latin neutral superlative ending.

 

Geranium richardsonii
Geranium richardsonii (Wild Geranium)
Geraniaceae (Geranium Family)

Foothills, montane, subalpine. Woodlands, meadows. Summer, fall.
Sharkstooth Trail, July 18, 2005.

Wild Geranium is one of the most common and longest flowering plants in the Four Corners area.  It is found from low to high montane altitudes in meadows and Aspen and Spruce woodlands.  It can have few stems, sparse leaves, and few flowers or, when it is in the moist soils it prefers, it can be luxuriously thick, almost shrub-like, with dozens of flowers.  Although flowers are usually soft white with pink/lavender streaks, pale pink flowers are common.  The palmate leaf resembles a Delphinium’s leaf. (Click to compare.)

John Richardson was a surgeon and naturalist on several Arctic expeditions in the 19th century.  The first specimen of Geranium richardsonii was not, however, collected by Richardson but by his fellow explorer, Thomas Drummond, in the Canadian Rockies, probably in 1826 or 1827.  The plant was first described and named Geranium albiflorum by William Jackson Hooker in his 1831 volume of Flora Boreali-Americana.  Friedrich Fischer and Ernst Trautvetter renamed the plant G. richardsonii in 1837.   (More biographical information.)

Click for more Geranium photographs.

Range map © John Kartesz,
Floristic Synthesis of North America

State Color Key

Species present in state and native
Species present in state and exotic
Species not present in state

County Color Key

Species present and not rare
Species present and rare
Species extirpated (historic)
Species extinct
Species noxious
Species exotic and present
Native species, but adventive in state
Eradicated
Questionable presence

Range map for  Geranium caespitosum

Range map for  Geranium richardsonii

Range map for  Geranium viscosissimum

Click for more Geranium photographs..

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