If you’re looking for a bright, splashy geranium, Pelargonium sidoides isn’t it. But if you’re looking for subtle beauty and healing power, this may be a plant for you.
First of all, let’s get our terminology straight: what we usually call geraniums are actually pelargoniums. Long ago, someone categorized the scented, multi-color-leaved, and bright-flowering plants as geraniums. The botanists have corrected this error, but ordinary people (and some garden catalogues) go right on calling them geraniums. Botanical geraniums are much more inconspicuous, low-growing plants, and some of them are native to the U.S. Pelargoniums, on the other hand, are native to South Africa. (Pelargonium comes from the Greek pelargos, “stork”; the seedhead is supposed to resemble a stork’s bill.)
Pelargonium sidoides came to European gardens in a different way than a lot of the splashier pelargoniums. In the 1800s, the story goes, a German man was sent to South Africa to cure his tuberculosis. A dry, warm, climate was often recommended for this condition, which wasn’t considered curable in Europe. A different climate and careful living could prolong the life of a tuberculosis patient, but they would always have the disease. And sooner or later, it would get them. The German man had a different experience. Somehow, he connected with a traditional healer who gave him umckaloabo. And a strange thing happened: the tuberculosis went away. It even stayed away when the former tuberculosis patient returned to Germany, there to tout his miracle cure.
In the 20th and 21st century, European research showed what that South African healer had known all along: umckaloabo is effective in healing respiratory illness of almost any kind: bronchitis, sinus troubles, plain old colds. Even very serious respiratory problems. I know that for a fact, because I had chronic bronchitis for more than four decades-before I started using Umcka extract. Each winter, I’d get at least one hellacious case of gut-wrenching, hollowly resonant coughing spells for a week or two, especially if I caught a cold or flu. Now I don’t, because I take a dropperful of umcka extract the minute I feel that weird sensation in my chest that used to come before an onslaught. I’ve recommended Umcka to many people: for those coughs that just hung on for weeks and weeks, and especially for children, because unlike most other cough preparations, Umcka has no nasty sedatives in it. You can take it and think and move just like a real human being–a decided advantage. By the way, I’m not being paid to advertise–I just find that umcka is so far superior to any respiratory remedy I’ve tried that I want to pass the information along. It’s made a huge difference in my life.
I am troubled by some recent information I’ve found: since it’s become so popular, umcka is now threatened in its native territory. The people who live there naturally want to improve their lot, and it has been overgathered. All the more reason for growing our own, to make sure there are more plants in circulation.
I like to grow the plants I use for healing–it’s a good way to understand them better–so I was thrilled when I found that one of our local nurseries had Pelargonium sidoides for sale. It’s not one of your easier-to-find geraniums, but it takes the same care as the usual kinds. They don’t take freezes, and while they like sun, in hotter climates you’ll want to give them part shade so they don’t fry. Judging by an abandoned greenhouse I found years ago on the southern California coast, pelargoniums thrive by any ocean where the weather doesn’t go below freezing. They need drainage, and they need to dry out between waterings. Goodwin Creek gardens recommends halving whatever fertilizer you generally use. Maybe I’ll remember this, or maybe I’ll just continue fertilizing them when I fertilize my other plants.
And then there are the flowers:
My umckaoloba may never get big enough for me to make my own tincture. I have to take it in when winter comes, and since my place is small, I have to limit the size of the pot. But I’m happy to make a closer acquaintance with a plant who’s kept me and my neighbors from debilitating illness. And I’m grateful for the amazing line of connections that has brought this subtly beautiful South African native to my back porch.
Goodwin Creek Gardens – These folks literally wrote the book on pelargoniums–Scented Geraniums: Knowing, Growing, & Using Pelargoniums, At last count, they grow 75 varieties at their mail-order nursery, specializing in the scented-leaf and zonal-leaf types, which generally have smaller flowers. They don’t carry P. sidoides, though.
Logee’s offers Pelargonium sidoides among their many wonderful items. Their plants always arrive healthy and in good shape.
Thyme Will Tell is the site where I got the info on the over-harvesting of umckaloabo. The information on Pelargonium sidoides is tucked at the bottom of this general article on pelargoniums (or geraniums).