Robin Parer loves the “little guys,” the background players that add so much without big roles.
“Geraniums are the supporting cast,” she said of her favorite flowers. “They’re not the star turn. What they do is subtle, adding color or fragrance or texture. But there are just so many, there’s literally one for every spot in the garden.”
Parer – and her plants – will be in the spotlight Saturday, March 25, at Sacramento’s Shepard Garden and Arts Center. She’s the featured speaker during the Sacramento Perennial Plant Club’s annual Vendor Sale.
“I try to put a geranium in everyone’s garden,” she said with a chuckle. “That’s my ambition. It’s a really satisfying mission.”
Owner of America’s last specialty nursery of its kind, Parer has traveled the globe in search of geraniums, the ultimate wildflower. Different species grow almost anywhere from low grasslands to mountaintops. She found them in the high Andes (at 14,000 feet elevation) and the depths of Australian swampland. She even plucked some from inside the rim of an Hawaiian volcano.
“Geraniums are native to every continent but Antarctica,” she said. “You can find hardy geraniums growing wild in every single country in the world.”
From the wild as well as other gardens, Parer has collected these little gems.
“Some (hardy geraniums) act like horrible weeds while others are simply wonderful,” she said in her distinctive Australian accent. “They’re sort of like your relatives – a mix. Because they’re wildflowers, they’re easy to grow. Like pets, they adapt well to life with us in our home gardens.”
She still travels extensively and keeps finding new geraniums to share.
Parer, who says she’s traveled to Europe at least 35 times to collect plants, has a collection of more than 500 species of the genus geranium.
“I’m besieged by people who want pelargoniums, so I grow a lot of those, too,” meaning more than 700 varieties of this drought-tolerant geranium relative.
Her small nursery at her home in Kentfield, 15 miles north of San Francisco, has become a haven for all things geranium.
“I don’t grow just one kind; I’ve got the whole family – geraniums, pelargoniums, erodiums,” Parer explained. “That’s why I named my nursery Geraniaceae.”
That’s the botanical name for the geranium family. Pronounced jer-ay-nee-AY-see-eye, Geraniaceae comes from the Latin word for “crane,” referring to the beak-like shape of geranium seedpods. Several species of hardy geraniums are known as cranesbills.
“People come and are surprised by the fact that it’s such an enormous family,” she said. “There are so many different kinds – scented varieties, Martha Washingtons, ivy leaf and many more.
“I grow 150 different scented geraniums – the variety of fragrance is amazing – and more than 130 of the Martha Washingtons or Regals, as they’re known in Europe. I try to keep the old and unusual going. That’s the virtue of a small nursery; you can keep the odd things growing.”
Parer propagates and preserves these rarities for other gardeners and collectors.
“As a geranium grower, I am always envious of her vast collection of the genus,” said Donn Reiners, Sacramento’s “Mr. Geranium.” “She is the experts’ expert when it comes to knowing the varieties of plants which dominate the world of geraniums.”
Reiners, who has known Parer for a quarter century, started seriously photographing her collection about 10 years ago. He collaborated with her on the book, “The Plant Lover’s Guide to Hardy Geraniums” (Timber Press, 260 pages, $19.95). Released last year, “Hardy Geraniums” is part of “a lavishly illustrated” and “excellent series,” praised the New York Times Book Review.
Parer got interested in geraniums while in England with her husband of 54 years, Dr. Bill Parer, a longtime UC San Francisco obstetrician who died in 2016.
“He had a sabbatical leave at Oxford,” she said, “so, we went to England for a year” where they’ve grown geraniums for centuries. That exposure got her started on her own collection.
Parer’s home nursery in Marin County draws admirers worldwide.
“You will never know who you might meet in the greenhouse,” Reiners said. “I have been there photographing the flowers for her website and in come two gentlemen from Sweden, wanting to purchase plants.”
Her secret is location.
“Her greenhouse and nursery in the Bay Area is geographically perfect to benefit from the cool climate conditions which geraniums adore,” Reiners said. “The greenhouse and grounds support a collection of plants numbering in the tens of thousands.”
For geranium lovers, Geraniaceae is like no other destination; it’s the last small nursery specializing exclusively in the geranium family in North America, he said.
Besides coastal California, geraniums love the Central Valley, too.
“They’re wildflowers! Of course, they adapt to drought,” Parer said. “They like medium to low water, but they’re so adaptable. With all the rain we’ve had this winter, they look fabulous.”
Parer recognizes how rare her situation is.
“It’s really sad. When I started in the 1970s, there were a lot of nurseries and growers specializing in geraniums,” she said. “But people get old, die off. I think I’m the last specializing in the whole family.”
Perennial Plant Club Vendor sale
What: Hosted by the Sacramento Perennial Plant Club, this huge sale features several specialty nurseries and local growers, offering hard-to-find plants, garden supplies, outdoor art and more. Robin Parer of Geraniaceae is the featured speaker at noon. Parer will be the guest speaker at the Sacramento Geranium Club, 10 a.m. April 3 at the Shepard Center.
When: 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, March 25
Where: Shepard Garden and Arts Center, 3330 McKinley Blvd., Sacramento