Rose-scented geranium (Pelargonium capitatum x P. radens) belongs to the family Geraniaceae and it is a multi-harvest, high value, commercially important essential oil yielding aromatic plant. The essential oil extracted from the herbage of the plant is widely used in the fragrance and cosmetics industry and scenting of soaps. The essential oil is extracted by steam distillation.
South Africa is now producing significant quantities of geranium oil. However, previous experience by this research group showed that seedlings often take long to establish, resulting in high death rates and sometimes poor growth after establishment. Stunted growth and yellowing of leaves was also observed in some cases. Poor vegetative growth causes low herbage yield and, consequently, low total essential oil production per hectare. Poor growth is believed to be due to a combination of factors, including nutrient deficiencies and acidic soil conditions and has not been studied under South Africa condition. Production of the crop is also reported to respond differently to rate and source of nutrition in various agro-ecological regions of the world. Therefore, field trials were conducted at the Hatfield Experimental Farm, University of Pretoria, in order to investigate how the plant responds to agronomic practices, such as source and amount of nitrogen, time of N fertilizer application, season of N fertilization and liming.
Response of rose-scented geranium to source and amount of N showed that, at the first harvest (summer/autumn), there was no significant effect of conventional N on fresh herbage and oil yield, probably due to leaching of N by rainfall. However, organic N at 100 kg•ha-1 increased fresh herbage and oil yields by 58% and 48% over the control, respectively. In the second harvest (spring/summer), fresh herbage yield increased by 46% (conventional N) and 60% (organic N) at 100 kg•ha-1 compared to the control. Compared to the control, 100 kg•ha-1 conventional and organic N also increased essential oil yields by 94% and 129%, respectively. For both N sources nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) and LAI decreased with an increase in N level, and organic N gave highest essential oil production efficiency and LAI. Essential oil content (% fresh mass basis) also varied between the harvests, being greater in the second harvest (September to December 2005; spring/summer) than the first harvest (February to May 2005; summer/autumn). This was due to environmental variations that occurred between the harvesting periods. N level and source were found to have no noticeable effect on essential oil composition. This study revealed that rose-scented geranium produced higher fresh herbage and essential oil yield when organic fertilizer was used as a source of N.
Nitrogen management in terms of rate and time of application is important in rose-scented geranium production. Delaying nitrogen topdressing (conventional N in the form of LAN; N 28%) after harvest to between the 7th and 9th week after cut back, was found to have a significant positive effect on biomass and essential oil production. Essential oil content of the plant did not show any response to a delay in nitrogen topdressing. A delay in nitrogen topdressing, in the first re-growth resulted into a lower citronellol to geraniol (C:G) ratio, which favour essential oil quality of the crop. Generally, the characteristics of the essential oil were within the internationally acceptable range for rose-scented geranium essential oil. In addition, production of rose-scented geranium during cooler periods is not advisable due to limited biomass production which might encourage leaching of nitrogen.
The net benefits from N application is dependent on the growing period and in the present study spring and summer were more beneficial than winter and autumn. Organic N at 100 kg•ha-1•year-1 increased herbage and essential oil yield of the crop in spring and summer but further increases in organic or conventional N levels had no significant effect. N application either in winter or autumn did not improve production of the crop. Application of more N than what is required for optimum growth of the plant had no positive effect on essential oil production. Application of organic N also resulted in higher N use efficiency than conventional N. The essential oil contents (% fresh mass basis) achieved in the present study generally fell within the range of 0.04 to 0.2%. Citronellol and geraniol concentration (%), were at peak in spring season followed by summer and autumn and lowest in winter. The ratio between these two components (C:G ratio) is also used as an indicator of rose-scented geranium essential oil quality and most desirable (low C:G ratio) essential oil was attained in spring, summer and autumn harvesting seasons and least desirable oil was attained in winter. The relationship between SPAD-502 chlorophyll meter readings (SPAD units) and leaf N content (% dry weight basis) was a quadratic function. SPAD-502 chlorophyll meter readings (SPAD units) matched well with that of leaf N concentration data of rose-scented geranium. Regardless of the factors that affect the readings, this instrument can be used as an indicator of leaf N status of rose-scented geranium.
Soil pH above 5.5 and soil base saturation above 55% increased fresh herbage and essential oil yield (per ha), which corresponded in this case with 2 to 6 t•ha-1 of lime application. Oil content (%) was not significantly affected by application of lime. Therefore, optimum growth of rose-scented geranium can be achieved by application of lime when plants are grown on acidic soils, but without any effect on oil content and essential oil composition. It can be concluded that N rate, source and season of production and soil pH should be considered to ensure optimal rose-scented geranium production.