Geums (JEE-ums), known commonly as Avens, are members of the Rosaceae family. They are especially useful to gardeners in Zones 5 and 6 because they are quite hardy (to Zone 4), they will grow in full sun or partial shade, and, perhaps most importantly, they offer a vivid color contrast to the soft hues of most early flowering perennials, shrubs and trees.
This pleasant example of Geum coccineum ‘Cooky’, shown in the photo at left, has been blooming in my neighbor’s garden since early May, despite very cool (cold, really) spring weather. It should continue to bloom through June. Currently, it offers a delightful contrast to purple iris and alliums, as well as gold-leaved spireas and barberries.
Geum coccineum ‘Cooky’ is a cultivar of the Scarlet Avens, growing to 12″ high with strong stems and beautiful trifoliate leaves that resemble those of some scented geraniums. Cooky‘s handsome leaves make it a perfect groundcover to plant in front of later blooming perennials, since the leaves will continue to be attractive even after the blooms have expired. The color of the flowers is a true, clear orange.
Geum chiloense ‘Mrs. J. Bradshaw’ is another cultivated geum, but it has scarlet-colored flowers and the stems tend to be floppy. Geum urbanum (Wood Avens) is a coarse-leaved yellow flowering plant whose root has been used for generations by herbalists (I don’t know how successfully) to address everything from gum disease pain to colitis to prostatitis. There are more than half a dozen other geum cultivars, but they are not readily available in commerce. However, geums are supposed to be easily grown from seed, and, if started indoors in January will bloom by midsummer the first year. The largest selection of geum seeds I’ve seen is at B & T World Seeds.
Geums prefer soil with plenty of humus and regular, but not excessive, moisture. They dislike wet feet and can suffer from root rot without excellent drainage. These are not plants for clay soil unless the soil has been substantially modified. Fortunately, geums will thrive in a wide range of soil pH.
Geums may be short-lived perennials unless they are periodically divided (early spring, before blooming, would be a good time to divide them). They can be fertilized with a balanced fertilizer of 5-5-5, or approximate, after bloom. Using too strong a fertilizer (higher amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) with geums could result in elongated flower stems, leading to floppy plants.
Generally, with flowering plants or shrubs, you want to fertilize once a few weeks before bloom and once a few weeks after bloom, since blooming uses up a lot of a flowering plant’s food resources. However, since geums bloom fairly early, the soil may be too cool for the plant to actively utilize the nutrients in the fertilizer, so probably best to wait until after flowering to apply fertilizer.