Fragrance drifts easily on the warming air in late
spring, and so even small plants near the ground or in a rockery can catch our
nose with their perfume. So it is with Dianthus, variously known as pinks or
carnations. Growing these old-fashioned perennials gives your garden a place in
history, but fortunately, there’s more to Dianthus than old stories—they make
fine members of the garden, offering colorful flowers and intoxicating scent.
are a genus rich in history and legend. They have
been beloved garden plants for centuries—they were even mentioned by Chaucer,
who, like many others, called it “clove gilofre.” This was Dianthus
caryophyllus, the Clove Pink, which arrived in England with the Normans.
gilliflower and gilloflower were all
derivations of its name, and the name is a reference to the flower’s spicy
odor. (What we know as florist carnations today are hardly recognized as the
spicy scented plants of old, because fragrance has apparently been given up for
the sake of a straight, long, cuttable stem.) It was used as a substitute for
the Far Eastern spice and used for flavoring in food and drink. (And in fact,
the cultivar ‘Sops in Wine’ makes reference to that use). If you are so
inclined, search the Web for recipes and you’ll find many.
The name Dianthus
comes from the Greek, and is a
combination of “Di” (referring to Zeus or Jove) and “anthos,” meaning flower.
The common name “pink” refers to the fringed edges of most flowers – looking as
if someone had been at them with the pinking shears. Some cultivars are more
fringed than others.
Separating pinks into categories can be a never-ending
task, because hybridizing has occurred over the centuries, and the mixes are
difficult to trace. Perennial Dianthus share the characteristic gray -green
foliage, and some selections are quite blue-gray. The leaves are linear, almost
needlelike, and you can find cultivars with grassy foliage. The flower stems
are often swollen at the nodes where they branch. The general types are as
Dianthus carophyllus: Clove Carnations, also known as
Clove Pinks. This is a Mediterranean species, but it has been so long in
cultivation, and carried so far from its native habitat that it’s impossible to
describe its original range. The species can grow up to two-and-one-half feet,
and can have more than one flower on a stem.
D. plumarius: Cottage Pinks, also known
as Garden Pinks.
The Sunset Western Garden Book calls this species “almost legendary.” Native to
eastern central Europe, the plant grows to about half the height of Clove
Pinks, and usually has one flower per stem.
D. gratianopolitanus: Cheddar Pinks. This
native to western and central Europe. It grows as a ground-hugging, mat-forming
plant and has blue-gray, needlelike foliage.
D. x allwoodii: known as Old-fashioned
Pinks, and also
as Modern Pinks (figure that one out). These selections are hybrids between the
already-much-hybridized D. carophyllus and D. plumarius, which is the Cottage
Pink); compact, grow about 10 inches high and 12 inches wide. Named after
British nurseryman M.C.W. Allwood (1879-1958), who specialized in Dianthus.
Maiden Pink. This is a perennial plant,
but it will bloom the first year from seed. Native to Europe and Asia. The
plants will reach about 18 inches, with the flowering stems growing more
upright than the foliage. The Zing series (‘Rose Zing’, for example) and
‘Flashing Light’ are two selections.
Dianthus grow well in sharply draining
soil in full sun.
A soil on the dry side is preferred to one that gets waterlogged, although
regular water suits the plants best of all. Neutral or alkaline soils work
best, and that is one reason they do so well in rockeries, along concrete paths
and in the spaces left between stepping stones or rocks in a patio.
What we call patios
in the United States are known as
terraces in Britain. They look very much as if pieces of recycled concrete have
been used to make a surface. The gaps between the concrete are ideal for
growing not only pinks, but thrift (Armeria), hardy geraniums and lady’s mantle