Geraniaceae or the Crane’s-bills and Stork’s-bills family

Probably the most common Crane’s-bill is Herb Robert or Geranium robertianum!

This week another pretty and mostly common native ‘weed’ which can even be useful! It easily could have been called the ‘Geranium’ family instead of Crane’s-bill family as the genus Geranium is its largest member here!

But the genus Erodium, has also several native species on the B.I. and has a fruit similar to a stork’s bill.

So what is the difference in those bird bills to give these plants their common name?

Found this information online from Bird expert Quentin Kalis. “The easiest way is to look at the bill; storks have large heavy bills and cranes have short bills.” Herons have intermediate bills between the two, and you can see pictures of those birds in the link here.

A few native Geranium and Erodium species are ‘useful’ for us people. Various insects find the plants a good food source. Below is a list of all the species which are native according to Stace, with links for you to find out more if you wish!

Most pictures are by Matt Summers unless different stated. The coloured background in the text indicates use. Green is for Wildlife, Ornamental, Edible and other uses. Pink for Medicinal or if the plant is poisonous or troublesome. Blue background for interesting information although I do hope you find it all worthwhile to read!

In Stace’s Flora we find that the Geraniaceae family consist of 3 genera growing in the wild on the British Isles;

  • genus Geranium or the Crane’s-bill with a total of 29 species but only 12 are true native species. It is also split into 3 different subgenera: Subgenus Geranium, Subgenus Robertium and Subgenus Erodioidea (no native species with this subgenus here).
  • genus Erodium or the Stork’s-bill with 11 species but only 5 are true natives
  • genus Monsonia or Dysentery-herbs which are introduced from S. Africa.

(genus) Geranium:

from Subgenus Geranium:

G. rotundifolium or Round-leaved Crane’s-bill taken at Dudley Zoo car-park (by Mike Poulton)

This plant is used as an astringent and diuretic.

This is a useful ornamental plant in a reliably moist, lightly shaded positions, as the name suggests! Various cultivars have been selected, of which ‘Album’ and ‘Mayflower’ have gained the Royal Horticultural Society‘s Award of Garden Merit.

The Meadow Crane’s-bill on the coast of Northumberland

Also a beautiful ornamental border plant. Several cultivars are available for garden use, of which ‘Mrs Kendall Clark‘ and ‘Plenum violaceum‘ have gained the RHS Award of Garden Merit.

The Bloody Crane’s-bill as photographed in the Northumberland dunes.

G. sanguineum is cultivated as a garden subject, and a number of different cultivars exist. The following cultivars have gained the RHS Award of Garden Merit:

This handsome species was recently shown to us on zoom by The Northamptonshire Native Plant-recorder Brian Laney

Close-up from the flower of G. columbinum or Long-Stalk Geranium

Geranium dissectum: Extracts of this plant are reported to improve germination rates of Hemp seeds. [3] But who wants to know that I wonder?

from Subgenus Robertium:

G. molle: Nicholas Culpeper in his herbal of 1652 suggested a variety of uses for G. molle, including the treatment of internal and external injuries. A note was made that the bruised leaf healed external injuries faster. A decoction in wine was said to relieve gout and other joint pains.[6]

Shining Crane’s-bill which has coloured a vivid red due to stress!

G. lucidum is a handsome plant, especially when it turns a vivid red in autumn or drought but it has been introduced to North America as a garden plant and in places, particularly the Pacific Northwest, has become naturalised and is viewed as an invasive species and noxious weed.

Herb-Robert or Geranium robertianum

Geranium robertianum is the only medicinal species of Geranium mentioned by Julian Barker in his Medicinal Flora.

Action: Astringent, haemostatic and styptic as well as a weak diuretic.

Uses: duodenal ulcers, diarrhoea; fistulae; metrorrhagia; Vincent’s angina; stomatitis; sores of Herpes simplex or H. zoster; erysipalas; nosebleeds and leucorrhoea.

Geranium robertianum or herb-Robert

Many people can get annoyed with probably the most common crane’s-bill found which is no doubt Geranium robertianum or herb-Robert.

But this plant is most attractive, especially close-up; with its delicate but pungent foliage which goes a beautiful fiery red in cold weather or poor growing conditions. It has delicate magenta star like flowers too. There is a white form I grew from HPS seeds on my allotment last year!

Its only fault is too spread its seeds too enthusiastically which therefore makes it unpopular with some gardeners.

Herb-Robert is a foodplant and nectar-source for many invertebrates including bees, hoverflies and the barred carpet moth.

Have learnt that the common name has been explained as a reference to abbot and herbalist Robert of Molesme. In another account it is said to be named after an ancient association with Robin Goodfellow, a house goblin from English folklore also known as Puck. 

Erodium spp.

The genus Erodium has 11 species mentioned in Stace but only 5 are ‘true’ natives.

This species has edible, raw or cooked leaves. Can be added to salads or used as a potherb. I found several other interesting uses on a brilliant American website called Eat-the-weeds.

The entire plant can be used as a green dye and does not need a mordant to set the color.

The plant is a febrifuge. It is astringent and a tincture of the plant is used in the treatment of dysentery. Found eight other uses by Eat-the-weeds:

  • A leaf tea has been used to induce sweating and is diuretic.
  • The leaves were also soaked in bath water to treat rheumatism.
  • Plant contains tannin, is astringent and a hemostatic.
  • It has been used for uterine and other bleeding
  • Roots were eaten by nursing mothers to increase milk flow.
  • Externally used as a wash on animal bites and skin infections.
  • A poultice of the chewed root has been applied to sores and rashes.
  • It is reputed to contain an antidote for strychnine.
the Common Stork’s-bill from an illustration of Wikipedia

The entire plant is edible with a flavour similar to sharp parsley if picked young. According to John Lovell’s Honey Plants of North America (1926), “the pink flowers are a valuable source of honey (nectar), and also furnish much pollen”.[10]

 Among the Zuni people, a poultice of chewed root is applied to sores and rashes and an infusion of the root is taken for stomach ache.[11]

It is a food plant for the larvae of the brown argus butterfly. The seeds of this annual are a species collected by various species of harvester ants.[4]

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