“The fairest flowers o’ the season are our carnations and streaked gillyvors, which some call nature’s bastards …’’
— Perdita in William Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” c. 1610
In this passage, Perdita complains about the prodigious hybridizing of carnations, particularly the streaked varieties that are now called by delicious-sounding names such as Raspberry Swirl and Strawberry Sorbet (surely more tantalizing than “nature’s bastards”).
Carnations were second only to roses as the most extensively crossbred flower of 16th- and 17th-century England, securing their status as an emblem of the Renaissance period.
Perdita snubs carnations as too artificially contrived for her “rustic” garden, reflecting a 400-year-old reputation that carnations have yet to shake, thanks to their prominence as a florist flower for prom corsages and wedding boutonnieres.
However, carnations can hardly be faulted for their willingness to adapt to human whims. To relegate carnations only to florists is to overlook their worthiness as hard-working garden specimens.
I grow several kinds of dianthus in my garden, including carnations, Sweet Williams, Cheddar Pink, and Maiden Pink. Each species does well in my rock borders as long as I plant them in well-draining soil with plenty of sunshine (they appreciate a bit of late afternoon shade, though.) My favorite dianthus is Cheddar Pink, a hardy perennial with blue-gray evergreen foliage that spreads like a mat, from which delicate-looking pink flowers bloom profusely throughout May and June.
I planted some dianthus by the arbor entrance to my front yard for their long-lasting color and spicy fragrance. I’ve noticed that dianthus aren’t bothered by chewing insects, most likely due to the toxins in their leaves and stems, and they are easy garden plants to maintain because they don’t need a lot of water.
Only now are my dianthus needing deadheading, an effort that will prolong the plants’ life and encourage a second round of blooming when temperatures cool again in September. (See my blog this week for more flowers that benefit from summertime deadheading.) I shear the stems of my pinks down to the mat, and then apply a balanced fertilizer to help rejuvenate them. In the fall, I divide the pinks by cutting away pieces of the matting and roots and transplanting them.
Dianthus are not difficult to grow from seed. Now is a good time to sow dianthus seeds for planting out in early autumn. Carnations and pinks overwinter well in our region if mulched. Next spring, if my carnations become too gangly, I’ll pinch them back to encourage more stems. For all their hard work in the garden, carnations usually need to be replaced every three years, but my pinks have tended to last longer with care.
Besides their beauty and fragrance, I grow dianthus because of their interesting history. The ancient Greeks used carnations to make wreaths and garlands for royal coronations. Once considered an aphrodisiac, clove-scented carnations were also used to flavor wine, which led to a common name, “sops in wine.” Interestingly, the color “pink” comes from the dianthus flower by the same name, rather than the other way around. “To pink” originally meant to cut a hole in cloth. Pinking shears are so named because the sawtooth blades cut patterns that resemble the ragged edges of the flower’s petals.
It was among the frayed petals of a pink dianthus that Marie Antoinette was said to have received a message from supporters who plotted to free her from prison during the French Revolution. Alas, Antoinette’s reply was intercepted by her jailors, and she went to the guillotine a few months later. Some literary scholars believe Shakespeare’s play, “The Winter’s Tale,” is really about the fall of Anne Boleyn, another queen who was beheaded in 1536 on orders from her husband, Henry VIII, who accused her of committing adultery.
These are certainly intriguing stories to think about while deadheading dianthus this summer!
— Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at email@example.com.