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Oh, my aching muscles...

By Marty Wingate

Visit Marty's web site

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.

Pinks 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.

Gillyflower, 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 follows:

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 species is 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.

D. deltoides: 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 (Alchemilla).

Varieties of pinks: More info

Dianthus need well-drained soil, and thrive in rockeries.

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